Turkey - RSF backs newspaper under attack from President Erdogan

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns Turkish government pressure on the newspaper Cumhuriyet, which is under judicial investigation for publishing alleged evidence that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) delivered arms to Islamist rebels in Syria.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan today accused Cumhuriyet editor Can Dündar of “spying” and vowed that he “won’t get away with it.”

Already the subject of a prosecution for reprinting the cover of the Charlie Hebdo “survivors issue” in January 2015, Cumhuriyet has been at the centre of a new storm since 29 May, when it published photos and a video indicating that the cargo of the Syria-bound trucks leased by the MIT in 2014 did indeed consist of weapons and ammunition.

The Istanbul prosecutor’s office announced the same day that Cumhuriyet and Dündar were being investigated under the anti-terrorism law. At the same time, prosecutor Irfan Fidan ordered the blocking of all online content that included the offending images, saying they “threaten the interests [...] of the Turkish state and are liable to endanger national security.”

Today, President Erdogan announced on television that he had personally filed a complaint accusing Dündar of spying. “The person who committed this crime will pay dearly, he won’t get away with it so easily,” he said, accusing Cumhuriyet of working for the Gülen Movement, once a close ally of Erdogan’s government and now regarded as its worst enemy.

“We call on the president to stop threatening the media and stop meddling in the judicial system, and we call on the Istanbul prosecutor’s office to immediately abandon its prosecutions,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

“The Turkish government’s Syria policy is an important topic that the Turkish public must be able to debate. The public has a right to know whether its government has delivered arms, and to whom. If the government now finds itself with its back to the wall, it cannot blame Cumhuriyet, which just did its job.”

Trucks leased by the MIT were intercepted twice by Turkish police as they were about to cross the border into Syria in January 2014, fuelling suspicions that the searches were the result of an ongoing power struggle between the government and the Gülen Movement’s supporters within the police and judicial system. The police officers and judges responsible for the searches were quickly sanctioned and any mention of the case in the media was banned. Since then, the authorities have always denied that the trucks were carrying arms.

Cumhuriyet’s revelations have reignited this explosive issue less than a week before parliamentary elections. Pressed to respond, the government has given contradictory explanations, all the while insisting that Turkey’s “aid” was destined for the Turkmen community in Syria, not any Islamist factions.

Nonetheless, most observers agree that the region to which the trucks were bound was under the control of Islamist groups such as Jabhat Al-Nosra and Islamic State.

Reporters Without Borders extends its full support to Dündar, who stated his position in an editorial today headlined, “We are journalists, not government officials.” Dündar has been summoned to appear in court on a separate charge of “insulting” President Erdogan.

See RSF’s press release on the reporting ban that the authorities imposed on the MIT trucks story in February 2014.