There are indeed judges in Ankara

There are indeed judges in Ankara

Last night, breaking news came out from the reporters who had been waiting for hours at the gates of Turkey’s Constitutional Court. The court had ruled that the rights of daily Cumhuriyet Editor-in-Chief Can Dündar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül had been violated. In other words, these journalists, who had been in jail for 92 days, had to be released. 

Thanks to this decision, Dündar and Gül were let go early in the morning, to be welcomed, in tears, by their families, friends and colleagues. They thanked everyone who supported them, and added: “Let this be a present to President Tayyip Erdoğan.” 

This “present” was sent to Ankara’s strongest man, for it was him who condemned Dündar and his colleagues at Cumhuriyet for “high treason” months ago and asked for them to be arrested. Soon, a prosecutor opened a legal case against Dündar and Gül and an Istanbul court put them in jail. It was a perfect example of the dissolution of judicial independence in the “New Turkey”: The ruler gave the verdict, and the judiciary followed.

The “crime” of Dündar and Gül was to publish photos of Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MİT) trucks covertly carrying weapons to Syria. This was condemned as “espionage.” It was mere news making, however, in the sense that the Iran-Contra affair was freely exposed by the American media in the 1980s. 

Now, the good thing is the Constitutional Court had the wisdom, and the guts, to stand up for free press in this case, despite the heat it may get from zealous supporters of the regime. This, once again, confirmed that in the depressing scene of our illiberal democracy, there is at least one institution that we can trust.

I had shared this observation before in this column, last summer, in a piece titled, “At least we have a decent Constitutional Court.” There, I had noted: 

“In the past two-three years, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, and especially Erdoğan, had developed a political narrative in which the ‘national will’ was supposed to the unbound by any limit. This glorious ‘will,’ which had culminated in the persona of Erdoğan himself, was deemed above any other value. Moreover, this triumphalism was presented to us as the height of ‘democracy’… Luckily, though, the Constitutional Court has remained largely untouched by this political madness, and kept on giving EU-compatible decisions that fully pleased no political camp. That is why I am happy to see that, within our uninspiring political scene, we Turks at least have a decent Constitutional Court. We need to protect it from those who may try to make it submit to the ‘national will,’ or any other authoritarian ambition.”

Today, I should add that this liberal stance of the Constitutional Court is mainly thanks to its earlier make up. All of the members of the court who voted in favor of freeing the two journalists were judges appointed by the two former presidents: Ahmet Necdet Sezer (2) and Abdullah Gül (10). Meanwhile, three members who voted against the decision were either appointed by parliament (i.e., the AKP) or President Erdoğan himself. 

Therefore, there is the risk that as new appointments take place in the years ahead, the liberal stance of the court may gradually be tilted to the other side. Keep that in mind.

One more thing: Dündar and Gül were only two among dozens of journalists kept in Turkish jails for their “treachery,” i.e., discomforting news. The campaign for a free press should go on.