Emrah Gurel / AP

Fresh crackdowns on Turkish media ahead of parliamentary elections

Erdogan is pushing for a harsh sentence for the editor of a paper reporting that Turkey has helped armed groups in Syria

As Turkey readies for its parliamentary elections on Sunday, President Recep Tayipp Erdogan is trying to muzzle an editor whose newspaper published two reports that could prove damaging to his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Recent reports published in Cumhuriyet claiming the Turkish government has been transporting fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from Turkey to Syria and is supplying arms to anti-government forces in Syria have placed Can Dundar in Erdogan’s crosshairs and could lead to a life sentence for the journalist.

Cumhuriyet, a pro-opposition daily newspaper reported Friday that agents from Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) allegedly transported ISIL fighters from Turkey to Syria on Jan. 13, 2014.

The newspaper reported that MIT agents rented two buses to carry the armed fighters from Reyhanli, a town in southern Turkey, to the Syrian border city of Tel Abad, which was taken over a few days later by ISIL. 

On May 29, Cumhuriyet published an unbylined report with still shots from a video allegedly showing MIT trucks sending weapons to Syria in January 2014. Erdogan critics have repeatedly accused him of backing anti-government fighters in Syria, including ISIL and Jabhat Al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front.

Erdogan has insisted in media reports that while the trucks belonged to MIT, they were carrying aid to Turkmens in Syria. Al Jazeera contacted Erdogan’s office and the Turkish Ministry of Justice for comment but did not receive a response.

Opposition leaders in Turkey have also warned Erdogan and the Turkish government that smuggling arms to Syrian rebels is a violation of international law and the Arms Trade Treaty, which Turkey signed in 2013.

"The AK Party is not aware of the situation that Turkey will be in before the international law, courts and U.N. once the prosecutors and other officers testify during their trial," Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the Republic People’s Party, the main opposition to Erdogan's AKP, told Today's Zaman. "This will reveal the illegal arms transfer to extremist groups in another country." 

"Erdogan and other Turkish officials are floundering on their explanations of this situation but what is at stake here is the right of the public to know what its government is doing and the press’s right to report it," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Human Rights Watch’s researcher in Turkey.

Speaking on the state television channel TRT Haber this week, Erdogan did not name Dundar, but said the journalist behind the publication of the video would "pay a high price" for his actions.

Erdogan’s lawyers on Tuesday filed a criminal complaint against Dundar with the Ankara prosecutor’s office. Charges included espionage and "falsifying footage and information" in an attempt to bring down the Republic of Turkey and prevent the state from carrying out its duties according to Anadolu Agency, an Ankara based news agency.

Far-reaching implications

More than 400 hundred leading Turkish academics, politicians, artists and other public figures are rallying around Cumhuriyet and Dundar and demanding the government stop its "pressures and threats" against journalists.

Dundar responded on Twitter on Monday, writing, "We are journalists. Our mission is not to store the dirty secrets of the state."

Human rights activists and media analysts point to Erdogan's call for a life sentence for Dundar as proof that his war against the media is intensifying.

"Erdogan has embarked on a destructive campaign against mainstream critical media for a long time now but his criminal complaint against Dundar carries the heaviest sentence for an individual journalist," said Mustafa Edib Yilmaz, the foreign news editor of the Istanbul-based daily paper Zaman.

According to Turkish media watchdog Bianet, 32 journalists and news publishers were in prison as of January 2015 in the country. Almost all journalists and publishers jailed in 2014 were charged with leading or being affiliated with illegal armed groups under the Turkish Penal Code and the Anti-Terrorism Act.

Bianet data shows that detentions and attacks on journalists and publishers increased significantly in 2014 and 2013 compared with previous years. Journalists and media publishers reported 148 verbal and physical assaults in 2014 and 186 in 2013, compared with 46 reported assaults in 2012 and 33 in 2011.

"Cumhuriyet’s reports are legitimate journalism, and it is not sustainable for a country that calls itself a democracy to muzzle the press in this way," said Sinclair-Webb.

"This reveals that the government has a particular interest in imposing a media blackout on coverage of damaging issues, especially before the elections."

Erol Onderoglu, Bianet’s media monitoring editor, said that going after Dundar might be a tactical error for Erdogan.

"He actually made a big mistake by choosing Dundar, who is more protected by Cumhuriyet’s circles and [is] well-known among Turkish and international journalists associations, recipient of many prizes and an ethical example [of a journalist],” said Onderoglu.

Some say the president’s case against Dundar could have larger consequences.

"The president's statements have often served as cues for Turkish prosecutors to initiate punitive legal action against the government's critics,” said Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media watchdog group.

"This conflict wont stop even after the June 7 elections, as independent media outlets will continue to question the Turkish government's domestic and international opaque polity and bad practices," said Onderoglu. 

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