Democracy as collateral damage in Turkey’s war on journalism

With the arrest of two prominent journalists, the Turkish government’s attempts at silencing the press shows no signs of abating, raising fears about the future of its democracy.


“Freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose,” wrote George Orwell in 1946, criticizing the climate of repression and censorship that had taken hold of the United Kingdom in the post-World War period.

Istanbul, Turkey. Nearly seventy years later: “If this is a contest between the state’s right to secrecy and deceit, and the people’s right to know; then we are fighting for the latter.” These are the words of Can Dündar, Editor-in-Chief of the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet. The statement was recorded just hours before Dündar was arrested, together with his colleague Erdem Gül, on charges of “disclosing state secrets, spying and aiding or abetting a terrorist organization.”

The arrest of Dündar and Gül is considered by many in Turkey and abroad as yet another nail in the coffin of the country’s press freedom.

Exposing government crimes

The order for their arrest was issued by a local court in Istanbul on Thursday, November 19, upon which the two men were detained and placed in pre-trial detention. Opposition leaders immediately expressed their disapproval of the decision. “Freedom of expression, people’s right to be informed and freedom of the press in Turkey are trampled on and violated every day,” read a statement issued by the co-leaders of the leftist HDP.

Over the course of the day hundreds of people gathered in front of the newspaper’s offices in Istanbul and Ankara in solidarity with the two journalists.

The case against the two men was launched after the publication of a report in Cumhuriyet that exposed the government’s attempts at smuggling arms across the border to Syria in January 2014. A video accompanying the report showed police officers and gendarme discovering tons of weapons hidden in three trucks belonging to MIT, the state intelligence agency.

The publication of the report and the release of the video angered President Erdoğan, who responded in a live interview with the state broadcaster TRT. “The individual who has reported this as an exclusive story will pay a high price for this,” he stated, before vowing to “not let this go.”

And indeed he didn’t. The president personally filed a complaint against Dündar, who could be send to prison for many decades if found guilty on all charges.

Turkey and the Syrian Turkmens

The arrest of the two journalist comes in the wake of an international diplomatic crisis after Turkey shut down a Russian fighter jet at its border with Syria. The Russian plane allegedly entered Turkish airspace while on a bombing campaign of Syrian Turkmen rebels in the northwest of the country.

Many explanations have been given as to why Turkey resorted to this extreme measure to protect its “sovereign territory” when it was under no direct threat. Apparently, the decision to take down the fighter jet was in part influenced by the Russian targeting of Turkmen rebels and villages. The Turkmens are an ethnic group historically closely related to Turkey and who the Turkish authorities have vowed to support and protect in their fight against the Assad regime.

While the Turkish support for their Turkmen kin served as a pretext to send a stern warning to Russia about its controversial Syria policy, it also doubled as a cover to legitimize sending arms and ammunition to rebel factions in Syria.

In an early response to the revelations, President Erdoğan claimed that the trucks were carrying “humanitarian aid” to the Turkmens. However, days after Dündar and Gül’s arrest he remarked in reference to the claims that the trucks were carrying weapons: “what if there were, what if there weren’t? What were are saying: ‘We are taking humanitarian assistance there.’ … That’s what we did.” Apparently implying that in this particular case illegal arms shipments ought to be seen as “humanitarian aid”.

Undermining democracy

That Turkey’s state intelligence agency was attempting to smuggle arms across the border into Syria is now an undisputed fact, thanks to the brave journalism of the Cumhuriyet editors. In Dündar’s words: “We are defending free media and the rights of journalists, but beyond that we are defending the people’s rights to access information.

“Contrary to the lies of the government, we are defending our freedom to expose those lies.”

Expanding on Orwell’s words, we can say that the “freedom to criticize and oppose” is not only key to the freedom of the press, but also key to the viability of democracy. A government able to pursue its schemes in the shadows, is not only a threat to its enemies, but a threat to its own citizens too.

“A state must not be able to commit crimes and declare them state secrets,” as Dündar said. In Turkey, the people put on trial are the ones exposing the crimes, rather than the ones who are committing them. In doing so, Turkey is not only attacking the freedom of the press, but also undermining the very basis of democracy itself.

This article was originally published at Al Araby.

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