Writing to Freedom | Michael Jansen - GulfToday

Writing to Freedom | Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Can Dundar. File

Former editor of the leading Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, Can Dundar is speaking out against the suppression of independent journalists and media by the government. Dundar can speak freely only because he lives in exile. Fellow editors and writers are arrested and jailed for implying criticism of Turkey’s regime headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Nothing negative can be said in print, on Facebook and in internet blogs and tweets.

Dundar is specific. He says Erdogan uses critical coverage to justify his crack-down on a wide range of people, including those in the press, who are accused of supporting the mid-2016 failed coup attempt and opposing his recent intervention in the war in Syria.

In an opinion article published on Nov.2 by The Washington Post, Dundar gives the example of Remziye Yasar, a co-mayor of a town in the Yukesekova district, who was questioned about the significance of her tweet, “War is no spear-jangling, trumpet-blowing celebration. It is a landscape of blood and death.” When interrogated she remained silent, relates Dundar. She was quoting from Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Dundar cites Ministry of Interior data from the first week of Erdogan’s “peace operation” in north-eastern Syria showing that 150 people were questioned or arrested, some of them for using the words “invasion” and “war.” Although 42 per cent of Turks oppose Erdogan’s Syrian campaign, most are too afraid to state their opinion. Dundar writes, “Erdogan thrives in this climate of fear and division” and is waging war “to stoke nationalism” and “crack-down on critics.”

In a Post article that appeared on Dec.3, Dundar reports Erdogan intends to both kidnap and kill opponents living abroad. Following the US killing of Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in north-western Syria, Erdogan stated, “Some countries eliminate terrorists whom they consider as a threat to their national security, wherever they are. This means they accept that Turkey has the same right.” He indicated that Syrian Kurdish leaders would be targets.

Dundar and Cumhuriyet’s Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul were arrested in 2015 and jailed for life on charges of being members of a terror organisation, espionage and releasing secret documents. The arrests followed the paper’s publication of photos of National Intelligence Organisation lorries carrying weapons to Syria for Ankara-backed ethnic Turkoman insurgents.

The story was picked up by the international media and broadcast around the world. Dundar and Gul were released on appeal after 92 days in prison. In 2016 Dundar survived assassination in front of the Istanbul courthouse where he had been defending himself against a charge of treason. Following the attempt on his life, he was sentenced to prison for almost six years for “leaking secret information of the state.” He went to Germany in 2016, resigned as editor of his paper, and said he would continue as a columnist.

Turkey issued an arrest warrant for him in October 2016, making it impossible for him to return home. His wife, Dilek Dundar, managed to join her husband only this year; their son is based in London where he works as a consultant for PEN International.

The story of his arrest has been turned into a play by Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company. The drama, adapted from Dundar’s memoir We are Arrested, was performed in Stratford Upon Avon last year and is currently running in London.

During his incarceration he spent time in solitary where he was denied coloured pencils with which to make pictures to pass the time, so he crushed fruit and used juice as colouring. Dundar is played by actor Peter Hamilton Dyer who acted in Doctor Who and Downton Abbey. On opening night, Dundar found people around him weeping and soon joined them.

The play exposes the harsh treatment meted out to incarcerated journalists in Turkey. Following the 2016 failed coup, 231 were arrested and in 2018, 122 were sentenced to prison.

Born in 1961 in Ankara to a Circassian-Albanian couple, Dundar studied political science at Ankara University, attended the London School of Journalism and earned MA and PhD degrees from the Middle East Technical University.

He wrote for several Turkish publications and worked in television. He has focused on Turkey’s history, culture and emergence as a modern state. He has written more than 40 books and has directed many documentary films as well as practicing his vocation as a journalist.

Dundar is not the only Turkish journalist who has emerged on the international scene while fighting repression. Columnist and television news producer, Ahmet Altan, is in prison after being charged with sending “subliminal messages” to planners of the failed coup. Although banned from writing and incarcerated, he produced and smuggled out an essay entitled, “The Writer’s Paradox,” in which he states, “I am writing these words from a prison cell... But wait.

“Before you start playing the drums of mercy for me listen to what I will tell you... They may have the power to imprison men but no one has the power to keep me in prison. I am a writer. “

The essay was published in both Turkish and English before his trial, prompting many authors to call for his release. In February 2018, he and his brother Mehmet Altan, also a journalist, were sentenced to life.

While in prison he published a book under the title I Will Never See the World Again, which was also translated into English and was proposed for a major British award for non-fiction. His case was reviewed and in November this year he was sentenced to 10 years and six months but released on probation. A few days later, he was rearrested following a reversal of the decision on his release.

Born in 1950 in Ankara, Ahmet Altan is the son of Cetin Altan, a journalist, author and deputy who was reputed to be the one of the 20th century’s finest writers in Turkish.

Ahmet Altan repeatedly challenged the Turkish state by producing an alternate history of Turkey where Kurds repressed Turks and, as editor of the left-wing Taraf, published an article dedicated to the victims of the Armenian Genocide. In 2011, Altan received the International Hrant Dink Award established to honour Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian writer and intellectual who was assassinated in 2007 for writing about the genocide.

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