‘Erdogan was in a fix’: Jailed Cumhuriyet chief on why Turkey punished journos for Syria revelations

Journalists and Turkish intellectuals holds a banner that reads, "Freedom for jailed journalist" on December 26, 2015 in Istanbul, during a demonstration following the arrest of Cumhuriyet newspaper's Editor in Chief last month. © Ozan Kose
Turkish President Erdogan’s regime used ‘state security’ as an excuse to cover up its smuggling of arms into Syria and persecute the journalists who revealed it, imprisoned Cumhuriyet newspaper editor-in-chief, Can Dundar, penned for The Guardian.

Dundar has been in prison on charges of treason, espionage, and terrorist propaganda since the paper released footage proving Turkey’s involvement in smuggling weapons into Syria in 2014 over a month ago.

“Turkey’s regime not only smuggled guns into Syria, it used ‘state security’ as an excuse to imprison the journalists who reported it,” Dundar wrote.

Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, Cumhuriyet’s senior editor in Ankara, were arrested in late November. The case against them was launched after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan filed a criminal complaint accusing the journalists of revealing state secrets and aiding terrorists.

In May, Cumhuriyet published several articles containing photos of what was claimed to be weapons smuggling by the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) into Syria in 2014. The trucks carrying the weapons were reportedly searched by police, according to photos and videos obtained by Cumhuriyet.

“The truck was searched. Beneath the camouflage composed of medicines boxes, weapons and ammunition were found. The truck was held for a while, but following the intervention of government officials a safe passage into Syria was granted,” Dundar wrote.

“The government immediately discharged the prosecutor and gendarmerie who stopped the convoy and had them arrested. It was declared that the trucks contained humanitarian aid. This incident, which fueled allegations that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government was intervening in the Syrian civil war, was rapidly covered up.”

The paper reported back in May that the trucks were carrying six steel containers, holding 1,000 artillery shells, 50,000 machine gun rounds, 30,000 heavy machine gun rounds and 1,000 mortar shells for anti-Assad extremists in Syria.

Turkish authorities denied all of the allegations, claiming that the trucks had been carrying humanitarian aid for Syrian Turkmen. President Erdogan vowed revenge against those behind the story, saying they would “pay a heavy price.”

In the opinion piece, Dundar said that Erdogan “was in a fix” after Cumhuriyet’s report was published.

“He couldn’t refute the story, so instead chose to censor the publication and threaten the journalist responsible, who was me,” Dundar wrote.

The journalist recalled what Erdogan said after the publication of the story: “The person who wrote this story will pay a heavy price for it; I won’t let him go unpunished.” Erdogan added that the footage was a “state secret,” and that publishing it was an act of “espionage”.

The editor-in-chief stressed that this kind of rhetoric only confirmed “that this was not the state’s secret but his [Erdogan’s] secret, he filed a personal complaint to the prosecutor’s office.”

Dundar concluded that “no label of ‘state secret’ and no rationale for ‘state security’ permits a state crime.”

“I defend myself with Winston Churchill’s words: ‘The Official Secrets Act was devised to protect the national defence … and ought not to be used to shield ministers who have a strong personal interest in concealing the truth.’”

Following Dundar’s arrest, around 1,000 people came out to blame the government of attempting to cover up the weapons scandal by silencing the critics and the press.

During a court appearance, Dundar said that, given the same circumstances, he would publish the report again.

“I am happy that the public learned of this [arms shipment]. The president came to a point of acknowledging the claims when he said the other day, ‘So what if the trucks were filled with weapons?’ His words openly contradict the allegations that the photos we published were fabricated. He admitted this. I believe this, by itself, is enough for the charges directed at us to be dropped. If Erdogan says, ‘So what if the trucks were filled with weapons?’ then I say, so what if we published it?” Dundar said during his defense statement. “As a journalist, it was my duty to show this reality to people.”