President has demanded editor-in-chief of local daily be sentenced to two life sentences for publishing ‘false information.’
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched aggressive attacks on media foes ahead of Turkey’s most tightly contested elections in over a decade, prompting fears of a clampdown on freedom of expression but also defiant vows not to stay silent.
Erdogan personally filed a criminal complaint against Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief of the secular Cumhuriyet newspaper, over a front-page story it said proved Turkey had sent arms to rebels in Syria, warning he would “pay a heavy price.”
And after a New York Times editorial said there were “dark clouds” over Turkey, Erdogan denounced the paper as “trash” and even said it had a tradition of vilifying Turkish leaders going back to the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II.
Erdogan, who became president in August after more than a decade as premier, wants to use Sunday’s legislative polls to create a presidential-based system that his opponents fear would lead to one-man rule. But the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) is under pressure, with opinion polls suggesting it may need to form a coalition for the first time since it came to power in 2002.
In this context, the Cumhuriyet story published on Friday was a bombshell, accusing Erdogan of covering up arms shipments to Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad. Prosecutors were quick to open an investigation and Erdogan in his personal complaint on Tuesday demanded that Dundar serves two life sentences and 42 years in prison for espionage and publishing false information.
Yet there has been an angry backlash and supporters of Dundar have rallied under the Twitter hashtag #CanDundarYalnizDegildir (Can Dundar is not Alone). Human Rights Watch said Cumhuriyet was doing its job of “researching and reporting the news,” and warned there was an “alarming pattern of the government clamping down on any scrutiny of its conduct.”
Tuesday’s front page of Cumhuriyet showed pictures of all its journalists and columnists with the headline “We are responsible [for the story]”.
It went a step further Wednesday, publishing statements by 30 Turkish artists and celebrities, including the author Orhan Pamuk, star actress Beren Saat and singing legend Sezen Aksu under the headline “We are beside you.”
Pamuk, who himself has brushed with the Turkish authorities in the past, said he condemned the pressure on Dundar “from the highest authority in the state.”
“Democracy and freedom of speech should not be sacrificed to the election frenzy and the hatred it generates,” Pamuk wrote.
Pro-government media have lined up on the other side against Cumhuriyet, with columnist Ibrahim Karagul of the Yeni Safak daily writing that “they signed themselves on the greatest treason of history by saying ‘Stop Turkey’.”
But Dundar refused to stay silent, penning an article Tuesday entitled “stop the threats and answer these 20 questions” over the alleged Syria arms delivery. “When a newspaper does not publish the truth, is it not guilty?” he asked.
Cumhuriyet had already angered conservatives by reproducing in January the front-page cartoon mocking Islam’s Prophet from the first issue of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo after the Paris attacks.
Erdogan meanwhile has turned the New York Times into one of his favorite campaign punching bags, accusing the newspaper of taking its orders from the U.S. government. He said he was just the latest target for the paper in a long history of attacks from Abdulhamid II to former premier Adnan Menderes (hanged in 1961 after a military coup) and late president Turgut Ozal.
“This task is not new for the New York Times… Now they have also done it to me,” he said in an interview with Show TV on Tuesday.
Turkey is already ranked a lowly 149th on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. This year, legal proceedings have been opened against dozens of journalists and individuals on charges of insulting Erdogan. “The court jester can remain silent. But our voice will continue to rise,” wrote Hasan Cemal, a former editor of Cumhuriyet, in a column for the T24 website. “We are not civil servants who must keep state secrets. We are journalists.”