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Turkish journalist Can Dundar braves guns, jail to rally for press freedom

Leela Jacinto, FRANCE 24 | Turkish journalist Can Dundar calls for the release of human rights activist Erol Onderoglu at the Reporters Without Borders headquarters in Paris on June 27, 2016.

There are few threats Turkey’s leading newspaper editor has not faced, from government threats to gunmen attempting a daylight assassination. But during a trip to Paris, Can Dundar vowed to keep fighting.


He has the middle-aged good looks of Richard Gere and, like many people on a mission in the face of grave danger – especially Turks – Dundar can be blasé, even darkly funny, about the threats he encounters on a daily basis.

Intimidation these days is part of a journalist’s press kit in a country that ranks 151st among 180 nations listed in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. Journalists in Turkey are being routinely detained and dragged through the courts with prosecutors opening more than 2,000 cases of insults to the president since Recep Tayyip Erdogan switched from prime minister to president in 2014.

Leading Turkish papers, such as Zaman, have been seized by the government and foreign correspondents posted in Turkey operate under a fear of expulsion for not toeing the government line on an array of crises confronting the country.

Even by these standards, surviving an assassination attempt in broad daylight under the glare of news cameras ranks high on the scale of press threats.

That’s exactly what Dundar encountered last month, as he was briefing reporters outside an Istanbul courthouse while awaiting a verdict on a high-profile case. The editor of leading Turkish daily, Cumhuriyet, was making a court appearance over his report on Turkish intelligence services supplying arms to rebels in Syria, when a man in a dark suit approached him and started shooting.

Video footage of the incident showed Dundar managing to escape while his wife, Dilek Dundar, in an incredible display of raw bravery, rushed to the assailant, grabbing his elbow and not letting go as security men arrived and arrested the gunman. A reporter on the scene was injured in the leg.

Hours later, Dundar was sentenced to five years and 10 months in jail for publishing secret state documents. As the case makes its way through the appeals process, one of Turkey’s most admired journalists is free to travel and raise international awareness about the grave threats confronting Turkey’s press.

His campaign found him in Paris, where he met with fellow journalists at the Reporters Without Borders headquarters Monday to discuss yet another high-profile case: the shock June 20 arrests of prominent Turkish human rights activists Erol Onderoglu, Sebnem Korur Fincanci and Ahmet Nesin.

When asked about his – and his wife’s -- extraordinary sang-froid that fateful day, when a gunman made an assassination bid, Dundar broke into a smile. “When you’re under threat, you have to always be positive. We’re almost waiting for such an attack. But of course it was a surprise. We were shocked, but we’re always ready,” he explained, before supplying a perfect quote: “If you’re living in a country where papers are attacked and journalists murdered, journalism is not a profession, it’s an addiction.”

‘Merkel is very close to the Turkish government’

But feeding that addiction takes grim determination -- especially when powerful allies who should be supporting the cause prove to be not so heroic after all.

When Dundar speaks about Erdogan’s assaults on the press, his tone is almost resigned. It’s as if, after more than a decade of Erdogan in power, he’s no longer surprised by the Turkish politician’s latest clampdowns.

But when it comes to the European Union -- and especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- Dundar proffers his most cutting quips, proof that this issue is getting under the affable 55-year-old Turkish editor’s skin.

“Merkel is very close to the Turkish government. In the past five months, she’s come five times to Turkey. I don’t know why she’s very keen on Turkey,” he wryly noted. “She’s the right person to convince Erdogan. I was trying to reach her, but she doesn’t care about human rights.”

Dundar was referring to a November 2015 letter he wrote to Merkel while serving time in Turkey’s notorious Silivri prison. The letter, which was published in Cumhuriyet, called on Merkel not to compromise on human rights while negotiating a migrant deal with Ankara.

"We would also like to hope that your desire to end the [migrant] crisis will not stand in the way of your sensitivity towards human rights, freedom of press and expression as fundamental values of the Western world," the letter noted.

His call went unheeded. Merkel struck up a controversial six billion euro aid-for-deportation deal with Ankara, leading Turkish activists to quip that six billion euros is the price of European honour.

Dundar though was trying not to appear bitter about that chapter, choosing instead to regale the gathering of journalists with a droll tale. “I was in jail, watching TV when there was this press conference with Erdogan and Merkel, and she was sitting in a golden chair,” recounted Dundar with heavy sarcasm. “At a press conference, [former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu was asked about journalists. He said there were no journalists in Turkish prisons. I was sitting in jail, telling the TV, ‘Hey, I’m here!’ Merkel was next to Davutoglu and she was just smiling. So, I decided to write that letter.”

The only paper in the Muslim world to publish Charlie Hebdo

Turkey has never really enjoyed prolonged periods of press freedom. Following the 1980 military coup, publishers faced censure if their books or periodicals broached the sensitive topics of secularism, the role of the military in politics or Kurdish rights. When the ruling AK Party swept to power in 2002, Turkey saw a media liberalisation, including the launching of TRT6 – also known as TRT Kurdi – Turkey’s first national TV broadcasting in the Kurdish dialect of Kurmanji and Sorani.

More than a decade later, TRT Kurdi has been reduced to broadcasting entertainment and wildlife documentaries that go largely unwatched among Turkey’s Kurds, who prefer Kurdish TV channels broadcasting from Europe. As the situation in the Kurdish regions of southeastern Turkey gets particularly grim, with journalists routinely denied access to the region, TRT Kurdi programming has become the butt of household jokes.

On the other hand, Turkish language media can now approach the once no-go topic of secularism. But in the current climate, religious sensitivities have now replaced secularism as the volatile issue du jour.

Dundar’s paper, Cumhuriyet, has long been a bastion of leftist, secular values. Over the past few years, assaults on the paper from government supporters and conservative Islamists have been mounting.

In 2015, two Cumhuriyet columnists were sentenced to jail for republishing a cover of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo’s post-attack cover featuring the Prophet Muhammad.

In an impassioned bid to drive home his message to his French colleagues Monday, Dundar brought up his paper’s support for Charlie Hebdo. “After the Charlie Hebdo attack, our paper was the only one who dared publish the cartoon in solidarity. It was the only paper not just in Turkey, but in the entire Islamic world, to do this,” he said. “You can’t imagine what kind of threats we were getting. The building was blocked, there was heavy security. Now, we are getting ready to publish the Panama Papers on Turkey. So, please, come see us after Wednesday,” he joked.

As for his future, Dundar admits, he has no idea what’s in store. His latest trip to Europe coincided with the first court hearing of Murat Sahin, an AKP supporter who tried to shoot him last month outside the courthouse.

Dundar says he does not know Sahin. But he has repeatedly maintained that when Erdogan publicly said the journalist responsible for the Syria arms story would “pay a heavy price", it represented a provocation. “I don’t know him,” said Dundar, referring to his attacker. “But I know who inspired him.”

When a Turkish journalist travels to European capitals with such a message, there’s bound to be more trouble when he gets home. But Dundar says he's prepared for that. “They can arrest me again, I really don’t know,” he explained earnestly as his French hosts tried to rush him on to his next appointment. “Since there’s no law in the country, you can never be sure. Erdogan is controlling the police, he’s controlling the army, he’s controlling the judiciary, how can you defend yourself? That’s why we need support from abroad.”

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