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Turkish journalists' arrests draw protests

November 27, 2015

Some 2,000 people gathered in Istanbul to decry the detention of two journalists associated with the daily newspaper "Cumhuriyet." At a similar protest in Ankara, police reportedly used tear gas to control the crowd.

Protests in reaction to the Can Dundar and ErdemGul arrest
Image: Getty Images/AFP/O. Kose

Some of the people attending the rallies in different parts of Turkey held up Friday's edition of the newspaper, which carried the Turkish front-page headline "A dark day for the press" while others accused the ruling the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of secretly collaborating with the self-styled "Islamic State" (IS).

On November 26, a court had ordered the detention of Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, and Erdem Gul, senior reporter and head of the paper's Ankara bureau. Both men were accused of "divulging state secrets" and sharing terrorist propaganda but have denied the accusations.

The publication had made a video available online in May, claiming to show the Turkish intelligence agency, MIT, sending weapons to Islamist rebels in Syria fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Some say that Turkmen fighters are loosely associated with IS.

Can Dundar
'Cumhuriyet' editor Can Dundar is a veteran reporter and one of the most popular journalists across TurkeyImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/V. Arik, Cumhuriyet

Turkish police were seen in the footage opening crates bound for Syria, which reportedly held weapons and ammunition on the back of MIT trucks. The Turkish government has always renounced claims saying it was meddling in the civil war in Syria, but many critics have long suspected some level of unofficial involvement.

'Badge of honor'

Dundar spent his 28th wedding anniversary listening to the judge read out the indictments against him and Gul. The Turkish newspaper "Hurriyet" reported that Dundar said that there was no reason to feel sad for his arrest.

"These (indictments) are our badges of honor," Dundar said.

The Turkish government issued a gag order on the video as prosecutors continued with investigations. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had vowed to avenge the publication of the video, stating publicly in May that those behind the story would "pay a heavy price."

Erdogan filed the criminal complaint against Dundar in person, demanding that he serve multiple life sentences.

International criticism

The controversial case has revived criticism on Turkey's record on press freedom under President Tayyip Erdogan. Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 149th out of 180 countries in its 2015 press freedom index published last month, warning of a "dangerous surge in censorship" there.

The Human Rights organization "Amnesty International" also attacked the Turkish government for the arrests of the journalists. Amnesty's Turkey expert Andrew Gardner told the DPA news agency that the move constituted "yet another terrible example for the state of press and media freedom" in Turkey.

Protests in reaction to the Can Dundar and ErdemGul arrest
A group of protestors gathered outside the 'Cumhuriyet' newspaper's headquarters, chanting Slogans including 'Erdogan is a a thief, Erdogan is a murderer.'Image: Getty Images/AFP/O. Kose

"It has unfortunately become normal for journalists in Turkey today to end up being sent to prison for their critical reporting," he said.

Opposition voices from Turkey

The United States Embassy in Turkey said that it was "very concerned" while opposition politicians also criticized the move.

Figen Yuksekdag, co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, referred to the arrests as part of a bigger government cover-up.

"All opposition press organizations that are abiding by the ethics of journalism and trying to do their journalism are under threat and under attack," she said.

Utku Cakirozer, a deputy from the main opposition CHP and a former editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, said that journalism itself was "being put on trial with these arrests," adding that the Turkish press was constantly being intimidated.

German trade unions weigh in

The German Federation of Journalists (DJV) trade union demanded that the federal government campaign for the release of the two journalists. In a letter addressed to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, DJV chairman Frank Überall said that Dundar and Gul were merely doing their jobs.

"Journalism is not terrorism," he wrote to Merkel and Steinmeier.

The DJV said that this Sunday's EU summit - set to focus on cooperation with Turkey on issues like migrants seeking entry into Europe - provided the perfect opportunity to pursue the issue.

A muted response from the European Union

The European Union meanwhile said the two journalists' arrests were "worrying." European Commission foreign affairs spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said that freedom of expression was "one of the fundamental principles for the EU."

"We are of course following these worrying developments very closely," she said in response to the detention of the two journalists.

European leaders have offered Turkey 3 billion euros ($3.2 billion) to cope with the migrant crisis - among other key concessions - in exchange for Ankara beefing up its border security, cracking down on people smuggling, and taking back migrants who do not qualify for asylum in Europe.

"We have to try to cooperate with Turkey because, in fact, we have no other options," European Council President Donald Tusk told EU lawmakers last month.

ss/msh (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, epd)