Can Dündar, a journalist who fled politically motivated prosecution in Turkey for the safety of Germany, is one among the many guardians fighting the war on truth honored by TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year 2018.”
“This is the world of the strong leaders who hate the free press and truth. When you start defending the truth, you become the story itself,” Dündar told TIME.
Dündar, the former editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, had been arrested in 2015 and jailed for 92 days along with colleague Erdem Gül for publishing a story on Turkish intelligence trucks carrying weapons bound for jihadists in Syria in early 2014.
Dündar and Gül were sentenced in 2016 to five years in prison for also publishing a video purporting to show the intelligence agency trucking weapons into Syria. An İstanbul court acquitted Dündar and Gül of charges of attempting to overthrow the government while ordering that charges of “knowingly and willfully helping a terrorist organization” be adjudicated separately.
They were released pending appeal.
Shortly after his release and an assassination attempt against him, Dündar quit his position as editor-in-chief and left Turkey as scores of other Turkish journalists under pressure have done.
“We all learned in our schools that journalists shouldn’t be the story itself. My government didn’t like this story, they put me in jail. I was attacked, and I’m in exile now. The story is not written by myself,” Dündar said.
In March 2018 Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the five-year sentence and ruled that the lower court should have convicted Dündar on espionage-related charges, which carry a 15 to 20-year sentence, rather than the lesser charge of disclosing confidential information.
“When I am disappointed or pessimistic, I always go to my library and read history books. Democracy and freedom of the press, they are fragile, but in the end, they will prevail,” Dündar said in a TIME video on its cover story.
Dündar, however, does not refrain from using the regime’s rhetoric when it comes to the persecution of faith-based Gülen movement sympathizers, who are labeled as terrorists by the Turkish government. The movement, which has been active in the areas of education and inter-faith dialogue around the world, has turned into the regime’s arch-enemy in the last couple of years.
The government has been pursuing a brutal and massive purge of real and perceived followers of the movement, whose leader, Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, is accused of orchestrating a July 15, 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. The movement denies any involvement, and Gülen has denounced any follower who might have participated in the abortive putsch.
The Zaman daily, Turkey’s most highly circulated newspaper until its seizure by the government in March 2016, was also oppressed by the government due to its links to the movement. Dozens of its reporters, columnists and even graphic designers are currently jailed. In a tweet Dündar avoided calling jailed Zaman reporters, who constitute the majority of imprisoned media staff in Turkey, journalists and instead labeled them as “Zaman people.”
In addition, in the summer of 2016 he reportedly refused to appear at the same panel discussion organized by European officials with former Zaman media group representatives. In Turkey, the Gülen movement is heavily stigmatized, along with anyone who is even remotely linked to the group. The movement has been the victim of the largest purge in the history of modern Turkey.
According to a Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) report published in December 2017, Turkey was the world’s worst jailer of journalists for the second consecutive year, with 73 behind bars, compared with 81 in 2016, although acknowledging that other press freedom groups using a different methodology have higher numbers.
A record number of journalists — 262 in total — were imprisoned around the world in 2017, said the CPJ. The committee also reported that 52 journalists have been killed worldwide in 2018, including Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered inside the Saudi Consulate General in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018.