A newspaper in the dock on Press Freedom Day

Turkey has became ‘the world’s biggest prison for journalists’

Can Dündar was awarded the 2017 Golden Pen of Freedom at the annual World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers conference in Durban.
Image: World Editors Forum

The police came in the early hours. Everyone was asleep … It was twilight.

Thirteen journalists’ homes were raided in the early hours of October 31 2016. The editor-in-chief of the newspaper lived in one; the CEO in another. Columnists lived in four, lawyers in three … the reporter, the ombudsman, the books section editor, the cartoonist, the accountant.

All were senior figures at the Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s oldest and most prestigious newspaper. Trying to reassure their terrified, bleary-eyed children, they were forced to watch as their homes and archives were turned inside out and computers impounded. They were taken to the main police station first, then to the hospital for a medical examination, and finally to the biggest prison in the country.

They were placed in solitary cells, with no idea why they were there. As it turned out, they had to wait five months before they found out. The indictments were announced on the 151st day: aiding and abetting armed terrorist organisations.

Which organisations, I hear you ask?

The very same Kurdistan Workers’ Party that the government had shared a peace table with three years previously, and the Gülenists that the government had jointly been ruling the country with for a decade.

Funnily enough, the risks posed by the Gülen movement had been flagged by these same journalists who now stood accused of being Gülenists.

And the evidence, I hear you ask?

Their reports, interviews, headlines, tweets and columns critical of the government. In other words, they would be tried on charges of journalism.

I, as the former editor-in-chief, was the number-one defendant. I was charged with altering the newspaper’s editorial policy. My first reaction was to exclaim: “So what?” Since when did prosecutors determine a newspaper’s editorial policy?

The answer was obvious: since the president’s seizure of the media in his drive for absolute power.

Last year, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embarked on a sweeping crackdown, accusing his former partner Gülen of masterminding the July 15 coup attempt. This was a “God-sent” opportunity to get rid of his opponents once and for all, even as he purged the civil service of the Gülenists he had personally installed.

Having secured absolute power with a declaration on July 20 of a state of emergency, he then constitutionalised this de facto regime through a referendum held under “civil” martial-law conditions – an amendment rejected by half the nation, all the restrictions and controversial Electoral Commission practices notwithstanding.

Turkey had fended off the coup attempt on July 15 but fell victim to Erdoğan’s counter-coup on July 20 – not military rule, but a police state.

In the wake of the attempted coup, the number of journalists in prison quadrupled from 30. As the Cumhuriyet contingent joined the 120, Turkey became “the world’s biggest prison for journalists”.

The constitutional amendment elevated Erdoğan to the position of ruler of the government, Parliament and the judiciary, in charge of the mechanism that appoints judges and prosecutors. Unsurprisingly, every journalist’s appeal for release was rejected.

With a few exceptions, there were hardly any media left to criticise this turn of events: one jailed journalist is a hostage that silences several others outside. This was the method used to silence the Cumhuriyet, one of the last bastions of the free press.

Even the tea boy who ran the cafeteria was arrested; his crime being a gripe – “I wouldn’t serve Erdoğan tea if he came here!” – overheard by the police constable on duty at the paper, who then informed his superiors. Lo and behold, the next morning our tea boy was taken into custody on a charge of “insulting the president”.

The Cumhuriyet is scheduled to appear in court on July 24. The entire editorial team of a newspaper is to face a judge for the first time after 267 days. They will be defending not only themselves, but also the free press as well as a democracy fighting for its life in the hands of a despot.

If this is a coincidence, it certainly is an ironic one: July 24 is the anniversary of the lifting of censorship in Turkey, commemorated since 1908 as Press Freedom Day.  This year, we commemorate Press Freedom Day as “Struggle for Press Freedom Day” in prisons, courtrooms and exile.

All our colleagues are invited.

Can Dündar is the 2017 laureate of the Golden Pen of Freedom, the annual award of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. Awarded since 1961, the Golden Pen recognises the outstanding action, in writing or deed, of an individual, a group or an institution in the cause of press freedom.

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