“They’ve tried to assassinate me twice in the last two hours: first with a gun and then with a court”. The quote belongs to Can Dündar, one of Turkey’s best known journalists. At the time Dündar was the editor-in-chief at Cumhuriyet, a prestigious newspaper, and in May 2016 there was an attempt on his life outside the court house where he was standing trial for revealing state secrets. A gunman shot him but missed, wounding a colleague of Dündar’s instead. The incident occurred at —arguably— the safest esplanade in Turkey, the one that lies outside the Çağlayan court house. Two hours later, an unperturbed judged handed down the verdict, the second attempt on Dündar’s life: he was sentenced to five years and tens months in jail. Dündar and Erdem Gül, the newspaper’s Ankara correspondent, had been accused of publishing footage (proven to be genuine beyond all doubt) showing that Turkey’s secret service had supplied weapons to the so-called Islamic State in Syria. After the video was published, president Erdogan himself launched an exceedingly harsh campaign against Can Dündar and his newspaper, which included personal threats issued on camera. The attempted coup d’état in July 2016 found Dündar abroad and it was enough to persuade him that it would be better if he didn’t go back to Turkey. He has been living in Berlin ever since and is a Die Zeit contributor.
Turkey is an extraordinary country, probably at the crossroads of too many things, a country that has struggled for decades —and still is— to have the sort of press that is worthy of the name. In 1997 I was invited to travel to Ankara to take part in a conference that brought together journalists from across Turkey, with a view to setting up a joint platform to combat authoritarianism and censorship. Someone thought that my internet experience might help them to dodge the restrictions imposed. That was the birthplace of bianet.org, a courageous newspaper that our servers at VilaWeb hosted for several years as a gesture of solidarity. The conference was banned, with police blocking the venue’s entrances completely. As I was a foreigner and mostly beyond their reach, I volunteered to read a manifesto denouncing the lack of freedom. Eventually I did so, and we even managed to hold a debate hosted by the Board of Architects, who offered their headquarters unbeknown to the police. That evening we had dinner in Ankara’s castle with the chairman of Turkey’s board of architects, an extraordinary man who was to appear in court the following day, and a groups of MEPs and US senators who had arrived to show him their support. When I got back home I realised that their determination had left a lasting impression on me, but I was also struck by the regime’s brutality, which sought to keep them on a leash no matter the cost.
Istanbul has a very special place in my heart, the result of reading much about this fascinating city, combined with many trips, too. I have witnessed students occupying the Gezi park and fighting the police. I have laughed there, out of sadness but also admiration, as I did when Nadire Mater showed me the cartons of milk they kept by Bianet’s entrance so that their reporters could recover fast from the effects of the tear gas used by the police. I’ve also stood speechless after discovering how —after a number of years— adherence to the strictest form of Islam had transformed Fatih into a neighbourhood increasingly covered up and clad in black. I have also personally experienced the hatred for the Kurds when a particularly hostile anti-Kurdish demonstration caught me by surprise and had me shaking with fear behind the window of the hotel room where I was sleeping, only hours before flying to Kurdistan.
I suppose all that explains why I was so struck by the images of Can Dündar running away from his assailant and miraculously escaping death. Dündar was no radical until the regime turned him into one. If anything, he was a renowned journalist, a recognisable face on panel discussions and a popular author who had written many books. However, during the Gezi park revolt he openly supported the young democrats in the column he wrote for Milliyet, which promptly got him fired from the paper. He went on to write for Cumhuriyet, the oldest newspaper in Turkey and a traditional supporter of democracy and liberal values. That’s where he incurred the boundless wrath of Recep Erdogan, the autocrat, with an article that exposed Turkey’s own Irangate, as he likes to refer to it.
I contacted Can Dündar by email and he quickly suggested meeting only a few hours later, after a press conference held at the Bundestag, without realising that I would be travelling all the way from Barcelona, which made the mission technically impossible. Still, a few weeks later we managed to have a pleasant chat in Barcelona, the city where he was promoting the Spanish translation of his book Tutuklandık (We Are Arrested). Our conversation kicks off with me drinking a cup of coffee and him some back tea in a mug he clasps with both hands.
—We are nearly the same age and initially got published the same year. I wonder if this happens to you, too: when you have been writing every day for years, the writing process ceases to be solemn and becomes a bit of a routine. But suddenly you found yourself in a prison cell, without a computer, not even a pencil and some paper. Writing in those circumstances must be rather different.
—We have never contemplated life without a mobile phone or a computer. And the truth is, suddenly you find yourself transported to the Middle Ages, in a prison cell. Alone. Isolated. The government wants you to feel alone, to think that nobody cares about you. But right then you meet up with two good old friends: pencil and paper. I thought to myself: “Very well. Remember Cervantes. So many centuries later, he still lives inside me, in his writings. And yet nobody remembers the name of the sultan who had him imprisoned in Algeria …” That’s how I understood that writers outlive dictators. So it was an easy decision: I had to get down to work and write.
There are no phone calls in jail. Nobody walks into your office looking for an argument. So I thought it was a good time to read and write. Also, to tell the government that they could throw me in jail, but they could not stop me writing. And I began to write like you are doing now, in a notebook. And you know it’s hard going, even physically. Your arm tires out. You struggle to keep the tingle in your fingers in check …
—I’m old school when it comes to these things. I rely on the audio recording, but I always take some notes. You never know what might happen …
—That’s right, you never know what might happen. Less so, if you are held in a prison cell. They might seize what you have been writing and it might never get out. And that was the other problem: getting my writings out. Anyway, what truly matters is that writing while in prison saved my life. I could talk to the paper, write down my sorrow, my anxiety. I had “someone” to share my feelings with. I thought I was lucky to be a journalist. Had I been a doctor or a lawyer, I don’t know what I would have done in there. But if you are a writer, a pencil and paper keep you company.
—You are a very well-known journalist. The editor-in-chief of an important newspaper, a renown author who was often on television … Suddenly all that changed. What did you feel when you found yourself all alone in that isolation cell?
—The truth is that I was mentally prepared for it. If you are a journalist in Turkey, first you go to college to learn the trade, you get a job as journalist, then you write something which the government dislikes, you go to jail and finally you write a book! That’s a normal life for a Turkish journalist. So, if you are aware of that, you must be prepared for it. Prison is part of the business and you shouldn’t make a fuss. I just thought that it was my turn, that many colleagues had preceded me and so I ought to do something worthwhile. I had to turn it into an opportunity. Truth be told, I never felt sad because there was massive support for me outside the prison walls. They wanted me to feel alone, but I never felt that way, not once. If people were standing up for me outside, I had to continue to be the same person. I had to read, write, talk … Even more, if possible.
In jail I learnt a lot about me, about prison, about resistance. Obviously I would never recommend that sort of, let’s say, education to anyone. But if you prepare yourself and are able to endure it, I honestly think that —admittedly— it can be a useful experience. Ultimately, it’s what has brought me here, for example. My book being translated … I would have never expected that.
—You were sent to jail for publishing a story with a video proving that Turkey’s secret service supplied weapons to the so-called Islamic State in Syria. While sitting in your cell, did you ever think about the day when you made that life-changing decision?
—No, never! I have no regrets, not at all. It’s true that at one point I was concerned about the impact this would have on our families. It was a huge story and it was all true. We had to run it. Our families, the families of everyone who suffered reprisals for the publication of that article, might obviously wonder if it was worth it. But, as journalists, it didn’t even cross our minds. We were duty-bound to run the story. It was big news and the public had a right to know about it.
—Yet the day you decided to run the story, you had a meeting with your lawyers. Were you aware at the time of what might ensue?
—Sure, but we didn’t expect the situation to get so bad. Our lawyers warned us that we might end up in jail, that there might be repercussions for the paper, that they might censor it. But if you are a reporter in a country like Turkey, you know what the consequences of your job could be. Still, I never really thought I’d end up exiled and that every member of the newspaper’s board would be locked up in jail. It was harsher than we had anticipated.
—The truth is, your story was genuine. You had all the evidence. Nobody could deny the facts …You did what a reporter is supposed to do: lay down the actual facts. But such are the consequences …
—They couldn’t deny the facts. There was mounting evidence. They tried to, at first, claiming that the weapons were intended for Syria’s Turkish community, but eventually they stopped denying it. It was far too obvious. Then they changed tack and said it was a state secret that we had revealed. In fact, that was Turkey’s Irangate and that’s why they got so annoyed. They wanted to conceal it but, following the international repercussion of our arrest, suddenly the world knew what the Turkish government was up to in Syria. It is a lesson for any government: if you wish to conceal something, do not censor it.
—Provided, though, there is a newspaper with enough courage to dodge censorship …
—Indeed. You can’t expect people to take decisions like we did, for the sake of it, when the price to pay is so high. Erdogan wanted us to pay a very high price for having published a story like that.
—In fact, those are the exact words he used on Turkey’s public tv.
—Yes. That’s why I wonder whether any Turkish newspaper would run a story like that nowadays. And the fact that I’m bringing up the question proves that pressure does work.
—When Albert Camus published his manifesto in support of the freedom of the press in Le Soir Républicain, under France’s censorship in Algeria, he wrote that in a world without a free press the fight is no longer necessarily collective, but it becomes individual. How can a journalist be free and decent, if there is no freedom in their country?
—The first step is individual, indeed. You must be brave and you need courage. But when you look at reporting in history, when you look at the Pentagon files and Irangate or the work of Julian Assange … Those things took courage. And then those governments reacted like Erdogan in our case. The difference, though, lies in the people’s reaction, the reaction of other media and civil society. If the reaction is to hold the authorities to account for their actions, to confront them about what they’ve done, then your personal courage attains great social value, it makes a great deal of sense. Otherwise, it would be merely a story about courage.
So in principle I agree with Camus on the role that individual responsibility must play; but I insist that we must also persuade our readers that this is important and we need their support, if that responsibility is to have any real effect. It’s not our news story that matters, but the reader’s right to know. We have a right to write, to inform our readers. But our readers have a right to know, to be informed, and our right to publish stems from their right to know. Not the other way round. We need our audience to survive. Otherwise, it’s all very well for me to write a book and tell it all, but what’s the effect of that? I’m exiled, I’m isolated and Erdogan is still in charge in Turkey. In contrast, following the NYT’s publication of the Pentagon files, society in the US pushed for a government change and they questioned America’s role in Vietnam. That’s what our news story failed to achieve. The other news outlets did not take our lead and we failed to show the general public the importance of what was going on. That’s the way it is.
—Most other media in Turkey showed you no support. How do you feel about that?
—In actual fact, we even had to respond to attacks from other news outlets! Media organisations have become our greatest enemy in that they have turned into propaganda-churning machines. Now, there’s something that had never crossed my mind: that I’d have to fight new organisations. It’s very sad to witness how some colleagues have suddenly become Erdogan’s mouthpiece and they are our enemies today … It’s very sad.
—Some of those colleagues were your workmates, friends even …
—Yes. That’s why it is so sad. But you learn a lot from difficult circumstances. At university you don’t learn that people can be so two-faced. Hardship soon reveals who your true friends are. It’s a priceless lesson.
—When you find yourself in the situation you have described, do you ever think about whether the task you’ve taken on is merely professional and journalistic? Or political, too? Where do you strike a balance between your commitment as a professional and as a private individual?
—There is no straightforward answer to that. Describing journalism is problematic. At university our lecturers taught us that journalism was supposed to be journalism and nothing but. Journalists were not supposed to be activists. You know what I mean: staying objective, not getting close to your sources, and so forth. That’s all very well, but what if I’m attacked? What if my country is on fire? What if they are attempting to curtail my rights? What about when they take my wife hostage and won’t let her leave Turkey? You need to react because you are not just a journalist. You are also a citizen and a person. My country is on fire and you’d like to just write a feature piece? My home is on fire and you expect me to just snap a few pictures and write a column? I cannot do that. It’s my home. The people I love are inside. I might be torn between getting them out any way I possibly can, or fetch water to put the fire out. But, no matter what I do, I’ve become an activist. Would anyone truly expect me to take photos of my burning home as I think about the headline I’ll write to explain that the people I love have perished? Unfortunately, I have no choice but to become an activist, a freedom fighter. We are not merely journalists, you know. And I wonder if anyone would be able to act differently in the same circumstances.
—You’ve come a long way from what you learnt at college.
—I have. My notion of journalism has changed completely, to be honest. I no longer believe in “objective reporting”. It doesn’t mean that, for instance, I do not want to interview president Erdogan. Of course I do. But that’s impossible now.
—When Erdogan recently visited Berlin you very nearly managed to sneak into his press conference.
—And the Turkish government warned that they’d cancel it, if I was present in the room!
Obviously, I cannot be objective in the current circumstances. The conditions to put what I was taught at university into practice are just not there. Objectivity in journalism is a romantic ideal that we must re-think, given the current state of affairs. In our world today, in Turkey, Russia, the US under Trump, in Malta and China, the bases that we used to operate on are vanishing and so we must find new ways of defending our rights. And we must be objective and not alarmed by everything that is going on, as that won’t help us at all. We’ll lose everything, if we do that.
—I’ve always argued that anyone who demands that you be objective is, in fact, urging you not to think for yourself …
—That’s why I like to make a case for journalistic honesty, which is different from objectivity. Being honest means that you never keep important information from your readers and it’s ok if you take sides, as long as you act like that.
—You can be a Barça or a Madrid supporter, but if you write something which you know will harm Madrid and you are pro-Barça, you should speak to Madrid before publishing the piece, you must double-check your information and ask their opinion about it. That’s what objectivity is about. No matter how big a Barça supporter you are, you must be fair and honest when you write your story. That is the essence of journalism. But you should note that in my current circumstances, I can no longer do that. I can’t phone Erdogan or anyone in his government and get confirmation of anything. They won’t pick up the phone! They even threaten to cancel a press conference, if I turn up. It’s unfortunate, but this means that there are no bases for objective reporting. Needless to say, I am not the one who destroyed them
—What do you do nowadays? What’s life like as an exile? Berlin doesn’t seem like the best city for you to live in …
—It’s the worst!
—So why are you living here, then?
—Because I’m still a reporter and Berlin is where the news is. There is a large Turkish community in Berlin who wants to know what’s going on in Turkey and I can write in Die Zeit about it. Where else would anyone be interested in my work? Where else would news about Turkey elicit so much interest? Likewise, Germany is Turkey’s main trading partner and I have access to important people to whom I can explain what is going on. It is a dangerous city for me because there are many Erdogan followers but, at the same time, it is the best place for me to continue my work outside Turkey.
A few months ago a play based on a book of mine premiered in Berlin. The protagonist, the actor who played me, was kept in a cage made of gold. That’s how they depicted Berlin, as a gold cage. The main character was inside and his family, friends and colleagues went round it, but could never touch him. I felt that represented me very well. Living in Berlin is another form of isolation, different from what I experienced in the Silivri prison, but isolation nonetheless.
—You have been very critical of the way Turkey has used the problem of immigration, the regulation of the flow of migrants, to blackmail Europe.
—The agreement between Europe and Turkey to discourage refugees from entering the EU was a shady business from the word go. It was a blatant lie. Erdogan’s promise of a system of free visas for Turkish nationals in Europe in exchange for keeping the refugee camps in Turkey was false. We all knew it. How could anyone expect Europe to open its doors to eighty million Turks? That’s how they framed it, but actually Erdogan agreed to the camps in exchange for cash and Europe toning down their criticisms. It’s obvious. At present Europe is happy because the flow of refugees has been stemmed and Erdogan is happy because he doesn’t get slammed so hard and he can keep doing his stuff.
—Nowadays even European politicians are hinting that Turkey might join the EU to make up for the UK’s exit.
—That can’t happen. Not with Erdogan. And it’s probably too late for Turkey. Unfortunately, we have missed the boat. Turkey applied to be a member of the European family before I was born. That promise has stayed with me all these years. I’ve always looked forward to the day, but now it is my son who looks forward to it. It is a pity, because Turkey was the only Muslim country with a secular, democratic political system. If Turkey had joined Europe in the 1960s, today the world would likely be very different. We would have had the chance to show the world that Islam and Christianity can coexist perfectly in a democracy. It would have sent a very powerful message to the world. But nowadays Turkey claims that the EU is a Christian club and islamophobia is on the rise in Europe. At present Erdogan quotes the Quran at public events because he knows that this polarisation works in his favour. That’s why I always tell Europeans that Turkey is not Erdogan, that there is a different Turkey beyond the regime and it needs our help. But there are many financial and political interests with Erdogan that get in the way. Arms sales, major financial operations, investments …
—Brussels only seems to see Turkey as a huge market, I think …
—If so, it is clear to me that, once again, Europe has renounced its values for the sake of self-interest and business. And it’s very sad. Turkey is not just Erdogan and Europe is not just the leaders in Brussels. I’ve seen that in Europe myself. You have civil society, so many people who support us in our struggle. Every day I feel like a member of that family myself, one of them. I can accuse the European governments of being on the wrong side, but I know that they are not Europe, that there is another Europe.
—You always strive to make that distinction, between the government (or the regime) and the people. And you always have something positive to say about Turkey. But what goes through your head when you see how Turkey is growing more regressive? For instance, I am struck when I see how Islamism is on the rise every time I travel to Istanbul. Now you are in exile and can see it from the outside, perhaps even more clearly. Some details are rather encouraging. For example, the election of the new mayor of Istanbul, even if Erdogan has taken legal action to change the result of the ballot.
—I studied political science, too and I think I learnt a thing or two. For example, I never point fingers because of people’s attitudes. If anything, I believe we are the ones to blame for failing to find the right tools and sentiment to get through to them. So, right off the bat, I blame myself rather than the voters.
Picture living in a country where you can’t get the truth, where you are bombarded with overwhelming propaganda round the clock. All tv stations spin lies. Newspapers keep printing positive news for Erdogan. He controls the police and the state’s bureaucracy. You cannot voice your feelings. You owe money to the government or the banks. And there isn’t a single political leader who can stand up to him. Not one alternative. And he is constantly peddling his Turkish nationalism, his Islamism, and he tells you that you must be proud of being Turkish —in his own interpretation of what it means to be Turkish. If there is nothing else, you’ll believe all that. What’s the alternative? So, in that regard, I can understand the people. And I do not criticise them for supporting Erdogan.
—If you don’t mind me asking: how do you intend to change that, if that’s the way things are?
—It’s down to us. It’s us who must do it. People don’t know, for instance, that Turkey has supplied arms to ISIS. They are unaware of the graft. Nobody knows that Erdogan keeps large sums of money at home and gives cash handouts to family and friends anyway he likes. People have no access to that sort of information because he controls everything. And that makes it very difficult. How shall we change that? Unfortunately, people are not concerned about the freedom of the press and democracy, but when the price of onions multiplies by three in one week, then they start to get angry. The Turkish economy is approaching meltdown and, for the first time, you can see how people who used to support Erdogan have begun to criticise him. There are movements within his party …
—Are you optimistic?
—Very much so. It’s the beginning of the end for Erdogan. The local elections are the beginning of the end. He has lost Istanbul, the city that saw the birth of his power in 1994, when he became mayor. To lose Istanbul is to lose Turkey. He had never lost in Istanbul for twenty-five years, until now. And there are prominent people within his party who criticise him and want to create a new party. The opposition have understood that they need to unite, if they want to achieve anything. There is a democratic front made up of socialists, Kurds, communists … And the new mayor of Istanbul is seen as a new hope. He might be the ideal candidate to run in the next presidential elections.
—Yet we live in a time of growing authoritarianism. Erdogan is not alone. Even in Europe we are experiencing stuff that used to be unthinkable. In Catalonia we have political prisoners and exiles …
—Doesn’t that make Erdogan seem less of an oddball? He is surrounded by a world that is looking more like him. Doesn’t that pose a grave danger for everyone?
—If you look at it, we had a good period after WWII, the baby boom and the 1960s, followed by the cold war and the horrible 1980s. Then the Berlin wall came down and a new era of freedom arrived. Now we’ve returned to that awful populism. I wonder if this negative period might have reached a tipping point. I wonder if it will be all downhill from now on. Five years ago I had the same sentiment that your question encapsulates, but now I see Trump in the US, for example, and also a massive build-up of anti-Trump opposition. Who’s not to say that a new time will start, for example? If the Soviet Bloc tumbled down, why not populism? I believe that people today are becoming very aware of the danger we face. For instance, the rise of Germany’s far right, the AfD, has brought the people together against them.
There is no denying that we are living through a terrible time, but I am optimistic. Europe is key to defend democracy and the freedom of the press, free speech, gender equality, secularism …
—Sure. But Europe allows permanent violations of human rights in Hungary, Poland, Romania, Spain …
—Well, would you say that those countries used to be democracies?
—Look at it that way, then. It’s odd to see them be part of Europe’s democratic family because, in fact, they had never been democracies themselves. Ultimately, this might be a process, a transition, and one day they might become a democracy. But being a democracy is more complex than claiming to be one.
—The last question: what should we do as journalists who are living in this sort of time?
—I’m off to lunch with Txell Bonet now, the wife of one of the Catalan political prisoners. She invited me to visit her husband, Jordi Cuixart. We travelled together to see him in prison. I went as a journalist, but I also felt very clearly that on the other side of the glass partition there was person sitting where I was myself five years ago. And I understood that, this man I could not touch or embrace was actually closer to me than Erdogan could ever hope to be. Even if Jordi Cuixart is Catalan and Erdogan is Turkish. And that there are no boundaries between us, the the only thing standing between him and I was a glass partition and nothing else.
We’re now one big family, all together, and that’s what matters. On this point, I don’t feel merely like a journalist. I stand up for my profession, my right to write, and he stands up for his views and holds the line. But the truly important fact is that now we are one big family and we support one another. That’s what I know. And I know that anything that makes this family grow will help the world. For a journalist, for any profession actually, standing up for the rights of everyone who fights tyranny is the most essential mission, the most critical of all. Because, if tyranny prevails, we will never be able to work as journalists again.