ISN’T President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — with full respect to him — debasing himself by being a complainant in a case that involves one of democracy’s fundamental principles: media freedom? On Friday, a Turkish court ordered that two of Turkey’s leading journalists, Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of daily Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gul, its Ankara bureau chief, be tried in camera and agreed to have the president as a complainant. The two have been accused of espionage because they published a report that said Turkish intelligence agencies were sending arms to Syria under cover of humanitarian aid, though the government says the trucks were carrying relief goods for ethnic Turkmen. According to President Erdogan, the report was part of an attempt to undermine the country’s international standing. The court accepted the prosecutors’ plea that evidence to be produced in court involved state secrets.
There is no denying President Erdogan’s popularity. The fact that the November re-election gave his Justice and Development Party (AKP) an absolute majority in parliament testifies to a popular approval of his economic policies, which have given the Turks a higher standard of living and made Turkey the world’s 15th largest economy. These assets should help the president develop greater confidence in his ability to stand dissent. Instead, his policies over the years have been characterised by strong authoritarian tendencies, with the media and judiciary coming under intense state pressure. Earlier this month, the state took over Zaman, its sister publication Today’s Zaman and news agency Cihan. Seen in the light of the crackdown on Cumhuriyet the world wouldn’t be wrong if it considered the AKP regime as waging war on Turkey’s vibrant media. There is no doubt Turkey needs political stability more than ever before, especially because of the Syrian civil war and a spate of terror attacks in Istanbul and Ankara. But political stability is not incompatible with freedom of expression. If the Cumhuriyet journalists have violated any laws, they must be given an open, fair trial.
Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2016