Cumhuriyet Editor-in-Chief Can Dündar and the daily’s Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gül, were arrested due to stories published about Turkish intelligence trucks bound for Syria in early 2014, on Nov. 26 in Istanbul.
“We are accused of ‘spying.’ The president said [our action is] ‘treason.’ We are not traitors, spy, or heroes; we are journalists. What we have done here was an act of journalism,” Dündar said before testifying to prosecutors on Nov. 26, in a case that has been denounced by many as an attack against free press.
“Of course, this prosecution will help enlighten how these incidents took place, rather than how we covered this story,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor Office has said the arrest had no connection to press freedom and no rights were violated, in a statement released in response to criticism about the arrest.
It was Dündar himself who announced the decision. “It is an arrest,” he said late on the night of Nov. 26 to those waiting in the court’s corridors, before he said goodbye to his wife, coincidentally on their wedding anniversary, and friends.
“Nothing to feel sorry about; these are medals of honor for us,” he said.
In his testimony, Dündar compared the case to the U.S.’ “Watergate” and “Iran-Contra” scandals, in which journalism played a distinctive role, adding that he believed they had “saved the state from an important mistake” by reporting the story.
“A journalist should report that story if he or she sees the country is in danger,” Gül said before he was arrested.
“My task is to reveal if something is hidden from the people and share it,” he said in his testimony.
His 80-year-old mother, Fatma Gül, who was also there to hear the verdict, could not help her tears.
“I raised my son with honor. I raised him collecting tea and hazelnuts in the fields,” she said.
Dündar and Gül were arrested on charges of collecting and revealing secret documents for espionage and supporting an armed terrorist organization (but not being a member) as the accusations were based on reports in Cumhuriyet regarding Syria-bound trucks sent by the National Intelligence Agency (MİT).
Dündar had the byline on the trucks story while Gül wrote a similar story on the issue.
The armed organization mentioned by the prosecutors refers to Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ), a term used by prosecutors to define the followers of Fethullah Gülen, a U.S.-based Islamic scholar, who have allegedly created a parallel structure, according to the government.
Footage released by Cumhuriyet on May 29 showed gendarmerie and police officers opening crates in the backs of trucks which contained what the daily described as weapons and ammunition sent to Syria by the MİT in January 2014.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan filed an individual criminal complaint against Dündar and Cumhuriyet on June 2, claiming that the story “included some footage and information that are not factual” while saying the person “who wrote the story will pay a heavy price.”
The criminal complaint, which was filed to the Ankara Chief Prosecutor’s Office to be sent to Istanbul where Cumhuriyet is based, argued that the newspaper “participated in the actions” of Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan’s erstwhile ally, whose followers are accused of infiltrating the police, the judiciary and the bureaucracy.
“By publishing fabricated footage and information that were leaked to him by the parallel organization, [Dündar] participated in the actions of the organization’s members who searched the trucks and plotted with fabricated evidence to create a perception…that the Republic of Turkey [was] helping terrorist organizations,” the complaint said.
The plaintiff accused Dündar of both “trying to manipulate justice” with fabricated material and “violating confidentiality” by publishing the story. Erdoğan’s lawyer, Muammer Cemaloğlu, also requested the prosecutor launch a public lawsuit following the investigation.
Erdoğan said whether or not the trucks carried weapons was irrelevant, on Nov. 24.
“What difference would it make whether the trucks contained weapons or not?” he asked, adding that the publishing of the story was “betrayal.”
Erdoğan claimed the trucks were set to deliver humanitarian aid to Bayırbucak Turkmens and that the journalists were complicit in “sabotaging” this aid merely to harm his image and the image of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.