The EU reopens the door to Turkey but “forgets” the journalists in prison
Giuseppe Didonna 20 December 2015

Over the past week newspapers in Turkey have reported alternating events one in apparent contradiction with the other. On December 14th the chapter involving negotiations concerning economic and monetary policies linked to Turkey’s EU membership was reopened. The integration process was resumed with unexpected speediness as part of the agreement on the management of Syrian refugees that will fill Ankara’s coffers with $3 billion to be used to build camps to keep Syrians far from the EU. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said he is confident regards to the resumption of negotiations, announcing the beginning of “a new era in relations with Europe.” 

With perfect timing, a court in Istanbul rejected the request presented by lawyers representing Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, respectively editor and editor-in-chief of the historical daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, for their release from prison, stating “the lack of new evidence that could determine the end of their detention” which started on November 25

The case emerged on May 19
th with the publications of images dated January 2014, portraying the passage of articulated trucks loaded with weapons crossing the southern border towards Syria, with the approval of the Turkish secret (MIT).

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan therefore decided to report the two journalists to the authorities because “the publication of false material and distorted information contributes to creating the perception that Turkey supports terrorists organisations.” 

Just a week before the June 7
th elections it was evident that there was a risk that this case could result in a flood of consensus; and, in fact, Erdogan thundered, “those who wrote this story will pay a very high price” and his lawyers demanded two life sentences for Dundar.

Interview with Can Dundar

I interviewed Cumhuriyet’s editor in his office in Istanbul, just a few days before the hearing that resulted in his arrest. The subjects we discussed obviously included freedom of the press in Turkey and the trial in which he is charged. His words and concerns have acquired strength and importance following events in the past month. 

“Although this has never been a paradise for journalists, we are now experiencing what is perhaps our worst moment,” revealed Dundar immediately. 

And why is that? “Erdogan dreams of becoming like Putin and does not accept the fact that part of the media and part of civil society will not allow this.” According to Dundar , the Turkish president “cannot tell the difference between criticism and insults and on the basis of this perverse mechanism many journalist have ended up in court.” 

The president’s aggressiveness is allegedly based on fear, “he has governed for 13 years, he has become accustomed to power, so fear of losing the November elections led him to behave in such a desperate manner.” 

Dundar points out that the day after the November 1
st elections, the president “concentrated on constitutional reform in order to become the country’s master.” When asked whether this determination against the opposition and the media might not turn against him, Dundar replied that, “the president cannot be aware of this, but 50% of the media are on his side, he relies on them and unfortunately I fear the worst is yet to come.” Speaking of the great solidarity shown to him by the Turkish and international media, Dundar reiterated that he was not at all afraid, saying, “I am not afraid and neither are my staff; I am not the first and I will not be the last to be in such a situation. Fifty percent of the Turkish media is free and independent and has the duty to keep going and move the country out of this situation. In the backdrop there is Europe, “which has the duty to apply pressure on Turkey so that things change.” But perhaps the EU does not feel it has any duties, with the exception of keeping Syrian refugees far away. 

Thrust and parry

The imprisonment of these two journalists has encouraged organisations such as Reporters without Borders and the European Federation of Journalists to ask Brussels to apply pressure on Turkey to back track. The Council of Europe has asked Ankara to release the two journalists only to receive the following letter from the Ministry of Justice. “The objective of this investigation is not freedom of the press or the media, rights that are guaranteed by the constitution, but the support the publication of these images provided to terrorist organisations.” The letter also states that “the greatest attention has been paid to respecting the rights and freedoms of those arrested, in compliance with international laws. Furthermore, national law allows the suspects to present an appeal.”
(Two appeals have been rejected , Editor’s Note).

The two journalists are in prison “because they voluntarily helped an armed organisation without belonging to it; they used and broadcast secret information for objectives involving political and military espionage; they published news concerning national security issues that should have remained secret.” The letter also describes as “insufficient” all alternatives to detention, “considering the nature of the crimes the two men are accused of.” 

Gulen once again?

The load, protected by secrecy, was not supposed to be the object of a search; hence the deductions of the public prosecutor who believes that there were the Syrian Kurds of the PYD behind the search and the photographs taken, but above all that this involved Fetullah Gulen, the Islamic ideologue and billionaire in exile in the United States, a former ally and current enemy of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

The point is that during the years of the alliance between Erdogan and Gulen (2007-2012), members of the billionaire’s brotherhood occupied important positions in the police and the judiciary, and are now dismissed or incriminated at the first opportunity. Gulen, however, owns schools, kindergartens, foundations, and above all television stations and newspapers. It is a network so widespread in the country that the idea that it belongs to a terrorist organisation appears to be controversial, and not only from a legal perspective. 

The AKP, however, considers Gulen the Number 1 enemy in the country and the struggle against the members of his organisation, be they real or imagined, will also continue thanks to the Turkish judicial system, for which many representatives are chosen by the government and end up acting on the basis of its externalisations.

One evident example concerns judicial events involving the 2013 protests in Gezi Park, for which all protesters have been accused of “terrorism and subversion” after members of the government of the time started to call them “terrorists and subversives.” 

In the same way, “media terrorism”, a very fashionable turn of phrase among Turkish media loyal to the president’s AKP, paves the way for judicial investigations imposed on opposition media. This was the case for another historical daily newspaper, Hurriyet, targeted by magistrates for having published a photograph of a PKK attack and was therefore accused of “propaganda in favour of a terrorist organisation.” Furthermore, before the November elections, two newspapers and two television channels were placed under administration “for having committed crimes in undertaking their activities.” In this case, the allegations were of propaganda in favour of Gulen. I wonder, however, to what extent Gulen, now politically destroyed and very elderly, could be a real subversive threat or perhaps instead is just an excuse for silencing critical voices. 

Will Turkey join the EU?

Unconcerned with all this, Europe has in the meantime opened its doors to Turkey. 

“It is a crucial moment” according to the Minister for Relations with the EU, Volkan Bozkir, in whose words the paradox is evident. 

The concerns of European institutions are addressed at the anxiety caused by finding themselves with refugees at their gates and they have forgotten that in Turkey there are currently 32 journalists in prison while one author, a TV host and a journalists have been physically attacked in recent months, with 36 journalists tried and seven of them sentenced to a total of 127 years in prison, all because of anti-terrorist legislation. 

Assuming that the construction of new camps may really dissuade Syrians from attempting the journey towards Europe, with the acceleration given to Ankara’s integration process there are doubts about the game Brussels is playing.

There are two possibilities. 
The EU could move forward with the integration process, to then stop it when the emergency is over, stating reasons easily imagined when reading the news reported above and per se sufficient to prevent Ankara from joining the club.

Should the refugee emergency continue or worsen, Brussels may close one eye (actually two) and move forward with Turkey’s integration. 

Two of the EU’s founding values, freedom and solidarity would thereby be irretrievably betrayed, the first for the Turkish journalists thrown into prison for doing their duty and the second affecting those who, fleeing war, would find the gates slammed in their faces and no other choice but to spend their lives in a refugee camp. 

Translated by Francesca Simmons