"This is about putting journalism on trial and we are defending the truth here”

By ECPMF, Sophie Albers Ben Chamo

Today of all days, on Turkish Press Day the trial against 17 media workers of the Turkish daily newspaper “Cumhuriyet” starts in Istanbul. It was originally a celebration of the day when media censorship was removed in 1908. Now it seems the free press itself is on trial. We met Can Dündar, “Cumhuriyet”’s former editor-in-chief, who is being tried in absentia. The curtains in his office are open for the first time, he says, after the Turkish state TV had sent a camera team to publicise where “the traitor” lives. The clock on the wall is stuck, with the second hand trembling at twenty to twelve. We talk about the best way to fight, about President Erdoğan’s strategy and the future of diplomacy.

Can Dündar, the pressure on you, your family and your colleagues is immense, did you ever think about giving up?

Can Dündar Can Dündar, former editor-in-chief of "Cumhuriyet": "It's our duty, our mission" (© ECPMF/Sophie Albers Ben Chamo)
I can’t stop talking. This is my life, this is my country, this is my family, this is my future, this is my paper, this is my profession. I can stop writing for my paper, that I can understand. But nobody can ask me to stop talking under these circumstances. This is our duty, our responsibility, our mission in a way. We have to be active, we have to be vocal, we have to be brave to talk and to do whatever is needed. This is a political case, and we have to defend ourselves politically.
What can we expect as the outcome of the trial?
It's a tug-of-war. We have to get the support of the whole world. We have to explain that this is not an issue of terrorist propaganda or something. This is about putting journalism on trial and we are defending the truth here. Join us and support us! That’s all.
What will happen after the trial?
It depends on our struggle. If we resist enough, if we are strong enough, if we are brave enough, we can take them out. Otherwise...
What do you mean by “strong enough“?
Two weeks ago there were two million people in the streets of Turkey. Now we have to defend those people.

You mean to show face, to stand up for democracy?

Can Dündar

Can Dündar, 56, is the former editor-in-chief of Turkey’s oldest daily newspaper, "Cumhuriyet" (republic). In May 2016 he was sentenced to five years in prison on a charge of "revealing state secrets" after “Cumhuriyet” published an article about secret Turkish arms deliveries to Syria. Dündar appealed against the verdict. Earlier he had served 92 days on a charge of carrying out "an act of terrorism", only to be released when the constitutional court declared that it was "an act of journalism". Dündar lives in exile in Germany.

Exactly! As many people as possible need to come to the court in Istanbul on the 24th of July. That’s what needs to happen. If we have 10,000 people in front of the court house that makes a difference.
Some people think the judgement is rendered already.
We don’t know. It really depends on our struggle.
Since the last “Cumhuriyet” trial in May 2016 the judges have been replaced, institutions demolished. What role do you think NGOs can play by going to Istanbul?
It helps our case. In my last case some parliamentarians came to observe. The judges tried to throw them out, but some of them, from the Kurdish party, stayed. They stayed there and waited, and it worked. They couldn’t be taken out because they were parliamentarians. Now they are in jail, because they refused to obey the court's decision.
This is a dilemma. Is media attention helping or putting the journalists in jail at risk?
Imagine how it would be if the people in jail were all alone and no one was interested in them. This is the worst scenario. You are risking their freedom and at the same time you are defending it. This is important. When I was in prison I was praying that people will come. Now I am out, and it’s – partly – thanks to the international presence.
What can people on-site do to support freedom of press?
Tell the world the truth. That’s it. Your attendance at the trial is so important. The Turkish government tends to say that people like you are agents of foreign countries, and therefore we are agents of foreign countries. But you are representing non-governmental organisations. We are on the same side, yes. Sometimes we fight together against the Turkish or German government. But actually we are not Germans and Turks, we are people
who believe in democracy.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave an interview to the German newspaper “Die Zeit” and was confronted by a journalist who strongly believes in media freedom. Do you think Erdoğan took something from it?
Of course he knows. But he doesn’t care. He is like Donald Trump. To them media is something dirty, and they have to clean it out.
Does Donald Trump being the president of the USA help president Erdoğan feeling more powerful?
This is a perfect example of how authoritarian leaders think. They are a perfect match.
And they met at the G20 in Hamburg. Were you worried about what happened at the summit? The blacklists of media workers, the attacks on journalists. Did you think, “now Germany too”?
Sure, it’s an illness all over the world. It’s not only Turkey.
Between 2007 and 2016 there were the so called Ergenekon trials in Turkey, and the crackdown on press freedom after the alleged coup last year looks a lot like it. Is president Erdoğan finishing what he couldn’t back then? Is this revenge?
Yes it is, in fact. There are two approaches about Erdoğan: one is that he had a strategy before he came to power, the other one is that he changed a lot during his governance. I am quite convinced of the first one. He had a strategy when he came to power, and the strategy was to get rid of the military, which was the obstacle between him and power.
How did that work?
He presented himself as a European, as a democratic soft islamist. In this way he got the support of the Europeans and the United States. He was a hero at that time, in the eyes of the Europeans. And together with the Gülenists he got rid of the army. He cleared the way. Afterwards he needed no one, neither the Gülenists, nor the Europeans. Now, that he’s in power he is the real Erdoğan. In fact he was the same guy for ten, fifteen years. It was a very clever strategy and he succeded.
The EU failed to understand what is going on?
It’s not only the failure of Europe to understand what Erdoğan is doing. They needed him at the same time because of the refugee crisis.
Do you think Erdoğan will cut loose from everything? Is this the end of European Turkish diplomacy?
Unfortunately the whole diplomacy is frozen now. Until the German elections I wouldn’t expect anything.
But in the case of the French photographer Mathias Depardon it worked.
But it was tough diplomacy.
The German government is too soft?
The German government should have reacted before (editor’s note: the Turkish-German journalist) Deniz Yücel was arrested. We already had more than 100 journalists in jail, and nobody cared. But when they arrested a journalist with a German passport they reacted - a bit late for my taste.
And now President Erdoğan accuses Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany of supporting terrorists.
That’s his argument, but on the other hand he is in contact with the Germans. Look, this is domestic politics. He’s playing a game. Because when you attack the Westerners, especially the Germans, his supporters are very happy - most of all those in Germany! He is challenging the whole world, he is the bravest. Then again, look at the economy. He needs Germany.
He uses the “threat of terrorism ”to legitimate all his actions.
There are 24 million “terrorists ”in Turkey (editor’s note: those who voted “no” in the constitutional referendum). This is the most crowded terrorist country in the world.
Was the arrest of human rights activists from Amnesty International a surprise?
Nothing surprises me anymore. Everyone waits for their turn. As I told you, it depends on us now. If we let him get away with it, 24 million people in Turkey are at risk. We have to come together, resist together, shout out together, otherwise we are lost. Because many people prefer a stable country, and a stable country can also be undemocratic. As long as it’s an open market, and as long as the economic ties are good, who cares about some journalists or human rights activists in jail?
The ECPMF cares, and we are in Istanbul to monitor the trial –  LIVE BLOG