(Istanbul) – A criminal investigation has been opened against a Turkish newspaper and its editor for reporting on a matter of public interest, Human Rights Watch said today. It is the latest assault on media that challenge the government, days before Turkey’s June 7, 2015 general election. The investigation should be dropped immediately.
The Istanbul prosecutor opened the investigation on May 29, the day the national daily Cumhuriyet published a front-page news story by its editor, Can Dündar, including photographs and a link to an online video, purporting to reveal large quantities of mortar shells, grenade launchers, and ammunition hidden in a Turkish truck bound for Syria in January 2014. In publishing the images, the newspaper challenged Turkish government claims over more than a year that the trucks had been part of an operation run by Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT) to transport humanitarian assistance to Syria.
“Cumhuriyet and Can Dündar should not be facing a criminal investigation for doing their job of researching and reporting the news,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The criminal investigation should be dropped and Turkey’s political leaders should stop threatening journalists.”
The government has not sought parliamentary authorization to supply weapons to Syrian opposition groups. The incident has raised serious questions about the murky dimensions of Turkey’s suspected involvement with the conflict in Syria and the Turkish government’s effort to prevent any legal or journalistic scrutiny of Turkish intelligence operations.
The Istanbul public prosecutor initiated the investigation “on suspicion of obtaining information concerning state security, political and military espionage, revealing information that should be kept secret, and propaganda for a terrorist organization.” An Istanbul court imposed a media blackout on the story the same day.
Both Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have accused the newspaper and its editor of spying. Erdoğan in a May 31, 2015 television interview stated that “The person who wrote this news shall pay a heavy price for it, I won’t just let it go.” On June 2, the president lodged a separate complaint with the Ankara prosecutor against Dündar, accusing him of publishing “fake images and information” and of crimes including “attempting to overthrow the government, or partial or total prevention of government duties,” a crime for which the penalty is life imprisonment.
There has been controversy over allegations that trucks have transferred weapons through Turkey to Syria since January 2014, when public prosecutors in Turkey’s southern city of Adana attempted to investigate the allegations. Prosecutors twice acted on tip-offs and sought to examine the contents of trucks despite the Justice Ministry informing them that they had no authority to do so, contending that they were part of an intelligence agency operation to carry humanitarian assistance to Syria.
On May 8, 2015, four prosecutors and a gendarmerie officer involved in investigating the trucks were jailed pending investigation on suspicion of “obtaining and revealing information pertaining to state security” and “attempting to overthrow the government, or partial or total prevention of government duties.”
“Threatening Cumhuriyet newspaper and its editor with charges like spying for reporting on alleged arms transfers comes just weeks after four prosecutors were jailed for investigating the incident,” Sinclair-Webb said. “The criminal investigation and threats against the newspaper are part of an alarming pattern of the government clamping down on any scrutiny of its conduct.”