Can Dündar in a Wider Context

Can Dündar in a Wider Context

On 29th May of this year, Cumhuriyet daily newspaper released video footage purportedly showing the Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı (National Intelligence Organisation) (MIT) transporting illegal arms into Syria. President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has since filed a criminal complaint against Can Dündar, the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, which accuses him of “participating in an act with members of the [parallel] organisation… by publishing fake footage and information leaked to him by the parallel organisation.” Erdoğan is seeking a life sentence for Dündar, after promising that the journalist will ‘pay a heavy price,’ in remarks televised on the state-run news agency (TRT) on 31st May. While President Erdoğan’s attack on Dündar may seem excessive, it is not entirely without warrant.

The trucks in question were stopped and searched in January of this year by local police and gendarmerie, but a media blackout in Turkey has prevented further reporting on the incident. President Erdoğan has maintained that the trucks were carrying humanitarian aid and medical supplies meant for Syrian Turkmens. He believes that it was the Gülen movement, a powerful international network of schools and business ventures headed up by the President’s former ally Fethullah Gülen, orchestrated the initial detainment of the trucks. Erdoğan has deemed Gülen’s movement a terrorist organisation and has been working to purge the police and judiciary in Turkey of what he refers to as members of the ‘parallel state.’ While Cumhuriyet newspaper does not have any organic links to the Gülen movement, the President believes that Dündar has been working with the organisation to discredit Erdoğan’s ruling Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) (AKP). However, many domestic critics, as well as those in the international community, see the charges against Dündar as a continuation of Erdoğan’s authoritarian suppression of media dissent.

Erdoğan’s government has taken a heavy-handed approach toward dealing with dissenting journalists and has systematically worked to curtail freedom of speech during its 13-year domination of Turkish politics. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Turkey held the inglorious distinction of being the “world’s worst jailer” in 2012 and 2013, although this number has declined significantly after they released a number of journalists in 2014 bringing the total number of jailed journalists from around 40 to 7. However this does not appear to represent a legitimate change in government policy regarding the rights of journalists, but rather a shift in direction.

While the majority of journalists in prison in 2013 were charged with supporting the internationally recognised terrorist group, the Partiya Karkêren Kurdistani (Kurdish Workers Party) (PKK), the government seems to have shifted focus to the Gülen movement in 2014. On December 14th of 2014, the government detained 31 people, including former police chiefs and media figures. Most significant of which was the detention of Ekrem Dumanlı, the editor-in-chief of Zaman Newspaper, as well as Hidayet Karaca, the head of Samanyolu media group. Both organisations are known to be founded and run by Gülen affiliates. According to the Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office, “The detentions [were] ordered in order to take their testimonies on charges of founding and directing an armed terror organisation, being a member of this organisation, and engaging in forgery and slander.” Many of those arrested have since been released, however the investigation is on-going. Additionally there is evidence that the government has stepped up its attacks against dissenting journalists over the past three months. The Çağdaş Gazeteciler Derneği (Contemporary Journalists Association) (ÇGD) issued a quarterly report in early July 2015 claiming “investigations were launched against 26 journalists in the second quarter of 2015 while 19 others stood trial and faced possible jail terms.”

President Erdoğan has not limited his attacks on free speech to police raids. He has also made ample use of the courts to intimidate dissidents by bringing legal cases against many of his more outspoken critics, including charging the former Miss Turkey, Merve Büyüksaraç, with “insulting the president.” Similar charges were brought against a 16-year-old student for remarks he made at a rally in the conservative province of Konya; he faces four years in prison if convicted. The president is additionally a vocal critic of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, the latter two of which have been banned several times under his government (most recently on 22nd July 2015 following the tragic bombing in Suruç). He is on record stating “There is now a menace which is called Twitter. The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.” He has likewise attacked international media including the New York Times (which he claims is run by ‘Jewish capital’), the German newspaper Die Zeit, and the Guardian, advising the latter to “know your place.”

Support for Dündar has been widespread both domestically, and in the international media. Human Rights Watch (HRW) as well as the International Press Institute (IPI) have criticised Turkey for the criminal investigation against him, with the IPI claiming that it represents “a disturbing lack of respect for the principles of media freedom and democracy” in the country. Within Turkey, a group of 400 intellectuals, including academics, journalist, and politicians have signed a statement expressing their support for the journalist and calling the criminal complaint filed against him a “clear violation of our right to information and…a constitutional crime.” While support for Dündar is both expected and admirable, it should not eclipse the significant truth represented by Erdoğan’s attack on the ‘parallel state.

It is clear that President Erdoğan is intimidated by free speech and has no room for dissent in his limited version of democracy; however, the recent charges against Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief Can Dündar may have more truth to them we would like to admit. It is tempting to construct a narrative regarding Dündar’s case that pits the embattled journalist against a dictatorial madman, raving on about the ‘parallel state,’ and imprisoning all opposition. While there is certainly some truth to that narrative, it ignores the significance of Dündar’s case in a broader context. This is not just another journalist under attack; it is the latest battle in an on-going conflict within the Turkish state between Gülenist and AKP factions, both vying to control the mechanisms of power.

Dündar has, thus far, refused to reveal the source of the video tapes released on 29th May, as is the obligation of any self-respecting journalist. However many, including President Erdoğan, assume that someone within the Gülen movement gave the tapes to Dündar, not an implausible idea. Gülen’s movement has tremendous financial and institutional power internationally, and within Turkey itself. Until 2013, Fethullah Gülen and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were staunch allies, working together to help ensure the AKP’s rise to power, most notably through the spectacular Ergenekon trials. During the Ergenekon trials, from 2008 to 2013 more than 275 people, including military officers, journalists and lawmakers were arrested for being members of an illegal organisation, which allegedly aimed to foment civil unrest within the country in the hopes of bringing about a military coup. Gülen and Erdoğan worked together to dismantle the so-called ‘deep state’ in Turkey, which has been compared to Italy’s Operation Gladio. The Gülen movement’s significant connections within the police and judiciary in the country are assumed to have been instrumental in bringing the conviction of more than 200 suspects, including some of Turkey’s top generals. The conclusion of the Ergenekon trials left the AKP free to rule without hindrance.

The marriage of convenience between these two parties ended in 2012 when Hakan Fidan, the head of MIT, was called by an Istanbul prosecutor to testify in court regarding an investigation into the PKK. Many have interpreted this event to represent the beginning of a conflict between pro-Gülen elements within the civil structure and the AKP. Erdoğan supporters have since taken to the term ‘parallel state,’ to denote the Gülenist extra-governmental power structure, which they believe constitutes a threat to the Turkish government. They claim that an anti-democratic organisation is run by the cleric from his mansion in the Pennsylvanian foothills. A power struggle has since emerged between the two groups, with provocations from both sides sending periodic shockwaves throughout Turkish society.

The AKP went on the offensive in November of 2013 when, then Prime Minister Erdoğan made it clear that he intended to close the private tutoring schools, known as dersane(s) in Turkish. Erdoğan did this under the guise of education reform, but it was clearly an assault on Gülen’s power as these institutions provided the main source of recruits for the Gülen movement, as well as constituted a significant portion of its income. Little over a month later on 17th December, Gülen responded by instigating a massive corruption probe into the finances of several high-ranking AKP ministers, including Erdoğan himself. The probe coincided with the release of several audio recordings, in which various ministers are heard discussing nefarious activities with relatives and businessmen; the most famous of these being a conversation between President Erdoğan and his son Bilal regarding the liquidation of large sums of cash. In response to this, Erdoğan bent the rules of human logic by simultaneously claiming that the tapes were fake, as well as dismissing several ministers and expressing outrage that he had his phone tapped. Directly following the corruption probe, Erdoğan began a massive restructuring of the police and judiciary, demoting, firing and relocating some 3,000 civil servants. Apparently, however, this was not enough.

The true scope of the Gülen movement’s influence came into focus in March of 2014; some three months after the corruption probe began. At this time, an audio recording was released on YouTube, which allegedly featured talks between high-ranking military officials, the head of MIT, Hakan Fidan, and the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu. In these tapes, Fidan is heard musing over the possibility of orchestrating a ‘false-flag’ operation in Syria, in which he would send several covert operatives to attack Turkish positions in the hopes of instigating a war. Davutoğlu, the current prime minister, is then heard asking about the specifics regarding international law to ensure that such an attack would indeed grant them a casus belli. In response to the release of these tapes Erdoğan banned YouTube in the country and ordered a media blackout regarding the incident (again, all the while maintaining that the tapes were fake). The despicable content of the recordings aside, the fact that talks between such high-level members of the Turkish government was being secretly recorded is troublesome from a state-security perspective.

President Erdoğan has been working tirelessly to root out the influence of Gülen from the Turkish government. He has restructured the police and judiciary, organised the state take-over of Gülen’s Bank Asya, brought legal cases against the Gülenist media groups and has been vocal about Fethullah Gülen’s extradition from the United States on several occasions. Despite this, Erdoğan has clearly failed to eliminate Gülen’s power within the nation.

Can Dündar’s release of the footage –showing MIT trucks’ illegally bringing weapons into Syria- is not shocking. It has been clear for some time that other states were at play within the Syrian conflict, the role of the United States and United Kingdom were made clear a few months ago in an article from the Guardian. Likewise, Erdoğan’s repressive attitude toward journalists and free press is well known, as demonstrated above. Dündar’s revelations are not novel for their content, nor for the reaction they have provoked; their true value can only be understood in the larger context of this political battle within the Turkish state. The release of the footage less than a week before the Turkish parliamentary elections was no accident; it represents a clear attempt to discredit Erdoğan and the AKP. Consequently, Dündar’s article and the response it elicited should not only be seen as another case of Erdoğan’s authoritarianism; but also as the latest attack by Gülen forces against the AKP. This is a clear sign that despite the president’s best efforts, the Gülen movement is alive and well, though perhaps embattled, and that the conflict rages on.

Ravel Holland, Lecturer, Bilkent University, Ankara

Please cite this publication as follows:

Holland, R. (August, 2015), “Can Dündar in a Wider Context”, Vol. IV, Issue 8, pp.23-28, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (



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