Editor Is Latest Casualty of Taboo Over Turkey's Syrian Border

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  • Court jails Can Dundar, one of Turkey's best-known journalists
  • Jailing fulfils a promise by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

It’s never been more useful to monitor Turkey’s southeastern border: refugees cross in, Islamic State fighters cross out, and this week a Russian jet’s alleged trespass sparked a diplomatic crisis. Yet doing so is fraught with danger, as one of Turkey’s most celebrated journalists discovered when a front-page scoop on the issue landed him in jail.

On Thursday, a court in Istanbul ordered that Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, the newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief, be jailed pending trial on charges of political and military espionage. Their crime: publishing images which allege to show Turkey’s intelligence agency shipping weapons to Syria.

Can Dundar, right, and Erdem Gul

Photographer: Vedat Arik/Cumhuriyet via AP

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week that the trucks were “carrying aid to our Bayirbucak Turkmen,” referring to a Turkic tribe backed by Turkey that’s resident in northern Syria, where civil war has been raging for four years. As to whether the trucks were carrying arms: “So what if they were, so what if they weren’t?” he said.

Dundar’s imprisonment marks the fulfillment of a promise for Erdogan.

Erdogan’s Vow

In an interview with state-run TRT television on June 1, the Turkish president vowed that Dundar would “pay a heavy price” for his reporting. “I won’t let this go,” he said at the time. The following day, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported that Erdogan’s lawyers opened a case against Dundar and Cumhuriyet, accusing them of revealing state secrets and attempting to overthrow the government.

While Istanbul’s chief prosecutor says the case has “nothing to do with press freedom,” the state news agency reported, the jailings are the latest and most prominent setback for journalism in Turkey. Under Erdogan’s rule, the country’s ranking on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index has slid. It’s now 149th of 180 countries, one of the lowest among the world’s major democracies.

A week ago, Dundar’s newspaper was awarded the Press Freedom Prize by Reporters Without Borders at a ceremony in Strasbourg. Cumhuriyet, which means “Republic” in Turkish, is managed by a charitable trust, making it one of the few operationally independent newspapers in a landscape where the press tends to be the property of large holding companies with significant commercial interests or government ties. It was founded in 1924, one year after the Turkish Republic itself.

‘Medal of Honor’

In February, Dundar, 54, was called to testify on separate charges of insulting Erdogan, one of scores of such cases opened since Erdogan moved from the prime ministry to the presidency last year. Dundar is also a prolific author, with 39 published works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry on his website. As of the publication of this story, his last post on Twitter, where he has about 2.4 million followers, was: “We’ve been arrested.”

The latest charges relate to a story Cumhuriyet published in May, which claimed weapons were found when three trucks were stopped near Turkey’s Syrian border on Jan. 19, 2014. Cumhuriyet said the contents included mortar shells and rifle ammunition, using stills from video footage that Bloomberg cannot independently verify. Turkey had imposed a press blackout on the controversy over the trucks, as it has with other sensitive topics including suicide bombings that killed 103 people in Ankara in October.

The paper also ran into trouble after it published translations of an edition of Charlie Hebdo published after the attack on the Paris-based magazine’s offices in January. While Cumhuriyet excised the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in its supplement, two columnists at the paper reprinted them. Cases opened against them sought jail sentences of four and a half years.

Speaking to reporters outside court, Dundar, who’s been a critic of the government’s record of jailing journalists, said he was acting according to the rules of his profession, with the goal of warning and informing the public.

“For me and Erdem, getting arrested is a medal of honor,” he said.

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