Turkey’s hardline treatment of outspoken journalists and academics has intensified in recent months, with disturbing consequences for free expression. On 6 May 2016, Istanbul’s 14th Court for Serious Crimes sentenced prominent writer, journalist and documentary film-maker Can Dündar (LR, October 2015) to seven years in prison, reduced to five years and ten months, on charges of revealing state secrets that could harm the security of the country or its domestic or foreign interests. Dündar is editor-in-chief of the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet and is well known for his literary work, as well as for a series of biographies and documentaries about important figures in Turkish history, including the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the poet Nazım Hikmet.
Alongside Dündar, Erdem Gül, the newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief, was sentenced to six years in prison, reduced to five years, on the same charge. Both journalists were acquitted on espionage and terrorism charges that could have resulted in life sentences. The prosecutions arose from an article alleging that Turkey had tried to ship arms to Islamists in Syria. Although the court found that they were not guilty of ‘attempting to organise a coup against the state’, they face further charges of ‘committing a crime in the name of a [terrorist] organisation without being a member’. The journalists remain free pending appeal.
Even more shocking is the attempt on Dündar’s life. At a break in court proceedings, a man attempted to shoot him outside the courthouse. Although Dündar was unharmed, NTV reporter Yağız Senkal was hit and slightly injured in the leg. The gunman reportedly approached Dündar as he left the courthouse with his wife and, calling him a ‘traitor’, fired two shots.
Carles Torner, PEN International’s executive director, commented, ‘That leading journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül were unjustly sentenced is a dark day for Turkey’s justice system and a dark day for press freedom. That they were both convicted just hours after an attempted shooting at Dündar is another disturbing development in a case that is reminiscent of Hrant Dink and other journalists who have been killed in Turkey. Turkey must fully and immediately investigate the shooting and cease imprisoning its journalists.’ Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, claimed that the Turkish criminal justice system was ‘guilty of gross misconduct’.
On 29 May 2015, Dündar published a story in Cumhuriyet alleging that Turkish arms had been transferred to Syrian armed opposition groups. The newspaper’s website provided a link to a video that appeared to show armaments hidden in a Turkish truck on the way to Syria. The report disputed the government’s claims that it was transferring humanitarian aid to Syria. After the article was published, President Erdoğan accused the newspaper and Dündar of espionage. On 31 May 2015, Erdoğan threatened Dündar in a television interview, stating, ‘The person who wrote this news shall pay a heavy price for it.’
Following a complaint by Erdoğan, the two journalists were arrested on 26 November 2015 and spent ninety-two days in detention while the authorities investigated allegations of publishing ‘fake images and information’, espionage, attempting a coup and aiding an illegal organisation. They were released from prison on 26 February 2016 following a Constitutional Court ruling that their pre-trial detention was unlawful, arbitrary, disproportionate and interfered with their right to freedom of expression. At the time, Erdoğan criticised their release, stating that he had ‘no respect’ for the ruling and would ‘not abide by it’.
Cumhuriyet has regularly come under attack by the authorities. On 28 April this year, an Istanbul court convicted journalists Hikmet Cetinkaya and Ceyda Karan for fomenting ‘hatred and enmity in the people via means of the press’ and sentenced them to two years in prison. The charge stemmed from a decision in January 2015 to republish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad from Charlie Hebdo a week after the massacre at the magazine’s Paris office by Islamist gunmen, in which twelve people lost their lives. It was intended as a gesture of solidarity. However, the cartoons sparked outrage in sections of Turkish society. Police stopped and searched Cumhuriyet vans as they left the printing press and protesters in Istanbul later burned copies of the newspaper. The lawyers who brought the case against the journalists reportedly have close connections to Erdoğan and several members of his family.
Readers might like to send appeals calling on the Turkish authorities to overturn the convictions against journalists Can Dündar, Erdem Gül, Hikmet Cetinkaya and Ceyda Karan immediately and unconditionally; urging the authorities to drop all charges against writers, journalists and others currently being held or investigated solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression; and reminding the Turkish government that it has an obligation to respect the right to freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Turkey is a state party.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdağ
Milli Müdafaa Caddesi No. 22
Kızılay, Ankara, Turkey
Fax: +90 312 419 33 70
Email: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
His Excellency Abdurrahman Bilgiç
43 Belgrave Square
London SW1X 8PA
Fax: +44 20 73 93 00 66, +44 20 73 93 92 13