Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday vowed that a journalist would “pay a high price” for reporting on the country’s role in sending weapons to Syrian areas under Islamist rebel control, the latest in an alarming series of attacks by Erdogan and his supporters on critical media ahead of a June 7 parliamentary election.
Erdogan threatened daily Cumhuriyet Editor-in-Chief Can Dundar in an interview on state broadcaster TRT that followed Cumhuriyet’s publication of a video depicting a border search by Turkish security services that uncovered weapons headed to Syria on trucks owned by Turkey’s intelligence agency.
UPDATE: Erdogan today filed a criminal complaint against Dundar and Cumhuriyet, arguing that the newspaper published “fabricated” footage as part of a “planned setup” undertaken by followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan has accused of orchestrating a since-suppressed corruption probe that he claimed was intended to bring down Turkey’s government. The complaint reportedly stated that Dundar, by “publishing the fabricated footage and information that were leaked to him by the parallel organization … joined the actions of the members of the organization who searched the trucks and plotted with fabricated evidence to create a perception in the scope of a planned setup as if the Republic of Turkey has been helping terrorist organizations”.
The video, posted on Friday, allegedly showed police officers and gendarmerie opening crates of ammunition and weapons loaded on three trucks. It bolstered a May 21 report by Reuters that Turkey was arming Syrian rebels – a claim that Erdogan has repeatedly denied. Erdogan’s attack on Dundar came on the heels of efforts by authorities to block opposition media from broadcasting via state-owned resources and a specious attack by Erdogan on the newspaperHurriyet over a report on the death sentence handed to deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi – a report that Erdogan claimed constituted a threat on his life.
The International Press Institute (IPI) and its affiliate, the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), today expressed alarm over what IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis labelled a “disturbing lack of respect for the principles of media freedom and democracy” ahead of this Sunday’s election.
“Reporting that apparently shows a politician saying one thing and then doing another is absolutely in the public interest, and the Turkish public has a right to know what their leaders are doing in their name, especially as they go to the polls,” Ellis said. “If Turkey’s voters can’t have the information they need to hold their elected leaders accountable, if they aren’t allowed to make an informed decision about their future, then what’s the point of holding an election?”
During his interview on TRT, Erdogan maintained that the trucks were carrying aid to Turkmen in Syria and he alleged that the weapons on the trucks were placed there by adherents of the religious movement led by his ally-turned-foe Fethullah Gulen in order to discredit him. Erdogan claimed that this “slander” of the intelligence agency was an act of “espionage”, to which Cumhuriyet was a party.
The state-run Anadolu news agency said on Friday that the Istanbul chief prosecutor’s office had launched an investigation against Dundar under Turkey’s broad anti-terrorism law.
Dundar commented on the matter yesterday in a tweet, saying: "We are journalists, not civil servants. Our duty is not to hide the dirty secrets of the state but to hold those accountable on behalf of the people”.
Turkey has seen a continuing deterioration of media freedom in recent years, particularly ahead of recent elections, as noted in the IPI Special Report “Democracy at Risk”, published in March. The report highlights Erdogan’s role – first as prime minister then as president – with respect to many of the major threats to media freedom, including economic pressure on media outlets, the promotion of a toxic political climate and manipulation of the legal framework.
While Turkey’s president is ostensibly obliged to remain outside of politics and Erdogan resigned from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) upon his election as president in 2014, he has actively promoted the party ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Erdogan has frequently expressed his desire to create a much stronger presidency with centralised power as part of his “New Turkey”, an aim he may be able to achieve without submitting that change to voters in the event that the AKP is able to capture two thirds of the seats in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly in the upcoming election.
Before last year’s presidential election, Erdogan hinted that he intended to remain the country’s leader until 2023, when the Republic celebrates the centenary of its founding.
The press freedom work of the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) is supported by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) project, as part of a grant by the European Commission.