Just over a week after Cumhuriyet Editor-in-Chief, Can Dündar, represented the Turkish daily news outlet in receiving a press freedom award, he and another top editor were arrested and jailed on charges of espionage. In question was a controversial article exposing arms shipments from Turkish intelligence to Syrian extremist rebels.
“We have been arrested,” tweeted Dündar on Thursday. “Don’t worry, these are medals of honor for us.”
He explained further: “We are accused of ‘spying.’ The president said ‘treason.’ We are not traitors, spy [sic], or heroes; we are journalists. What we have done here is an act of journalism,” said Dündar before testifying on Thursday. “Of course, this prosecution will help enlighten how these incidents took place, rather than how we covered this story.”
Now a third Turkish journalist has been arrested, according to local reports. Ertuğrul Özkök, a reporter for Turkish daily Hüriyet, has been arrested for a slanderous criticism of who is presumed to be Erdoğan — even though the president wasn’t explicitly named anywhere in Özkök’s article. As if more evidence of Turkey’s quashing free press and free speech were needed , Özkök potentially faces five years and four months in prison for expressing this opinion.
Dündar and Ankara correspondent, Erdem Gül, if found guilty on charges of spying, as well as aiding a terrorist organization, could spend the rest of their lives in a Turkish prison — for doing their job. There is a painfully ironic undercurrent in the charges considering the subject of the article is the Erdoğan administration’s complicity in arming Syrian extremists (read:terrorists).
Erdoğan himself sued Dündar and accused Cumhuriyet of releasing false information and spying when the story first exploded, stating at the time the journalist responsible would “pay a heavy price,” as the Wall Street Journal reported.
Despite Cunhuriyet’s recent honor from Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF, or Reporters Without Borders), under the paranoid, watchful eye of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, journalists — and dissenters — have faced sweeping general censorship. Dündar and Gül might be the most prominent recent examples of Erdoğan’s attempt to keep “state secrets” concealed from public scrutiny, but they’re not the first journalists to poke this particular sore spot.
In fact, the last time a reporter tried to expose Turkey’s complicity in arming Syrian extremists, she met an untimely and as-yet unexplained death under seriously suspicious circumstances that remain inscrutable to this day — even to her own family.
PressTV reporter Serena Shim, a U.S. citizen, had been investigating the flow of anti-Assad militants and weapons from Turkey’s border region into northwestern Syria amidst heavy fighting near the town of Kobanî. During this time, she attracted the attention of Turkish Intelligence (MiT — Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı). Though locals knew her and the integrity of her reporting, MiT proceeded to question them and requested her whereabouts — under the unfounded guise Shim had been acting as a spy.
In reality, Shim had “uncovered evidence of secret Western assistance to the Islamic State” — a particularly touchy subject for Erdoğan, as seen in the arrests of Dünbar and Gül. Her video evidence of this assistance — reportedly “proof of Islamic State terrorists using United Nations World Food Program vehicles for a convoy” into Syria, likely akin to Dünbar and Gül’s discovery — has never been recovered. Her passport and wedding ring, seized by Turkish authorities sometime after her death, have never been returned to her family.
Serena Shim and her cousin, cameraperson Judy Irish, unlike the arguably more fortunate Dünbar and Gül, were ostensibly “hit by a truck after turning into the opposite lane on a highway access road,” as reported in wtfrly.com. Shim was killed, though discrepancies are plentiful in official reports, including whether she died at the scene or an hour later from heart failure in the hospital. Shim and Irish were inexplicably taken to hospitals over 25 miles apart from each other by Turkish military officials, not police, who ‘investigated’ the wreck. After outrage from Shim’s family, Turkish authorities — who first claimed they were unable to locate the vehicle responsible for hitting Shim and Irish — eventually produced photos of the accident, which they then claimed had been caused by a cement truck driver.
Shim’s family has yet to receive answers from either Turkish or U.S. authorities about her dubious demise. On October 20, 2014, Marie Harf of the State Department took questions from the press on a number of subjects, including rumors surrounding Shim’s death. According to the transcript:
QUESTION: Does the U.S. have any comment on reports the death of U.S. citizen Serena Shim in Turkey may be more than just a car crash, following her reports that ISIS militants are being smuggled across the Syrian border?
HARF: Yes. We can confirm that she died in Turkey on October 19th and extend our deepest condolences to her family and friends. Officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Adana are in contact with her family and providing all possible consular assistance. For any details or information about the investigation, I think local authorities in Turkey are handling that.
QUESTION: But I mean, the question was whether you believe that her death had anything other than to do than [sic] a car crash.
HARF: I just don’t have anything further for you than that.
QUESTION: Can you take the question?
HARF: I can, but I don’t think I’m going to have anything further.
On November 20th, the media again attempted to press for answers about Shim’s death during a daily briefing given by Jeff Rathke. Per the transcript:
QUESTION: It’s about the journalist Serena Shim, who died in Turkey under very suspicious circumstances. Did her death raise suspicions here at the State Department?
RATHKE: Well, I think we’ve spoken to this in the briefing room several weeks ago, after it happened. I don’t have anything to add to what the spokesperson said at the time, though.
QUESTION: But then she died several days after she claimed she had been threatened by the Turkish intelligence. Have you inquired about this? Have you asked questions? Is there really nothing new about this?
RATHKE: Well, I just don’t have any update to share with you. Again, this was raised shortly after her death. The spokesperson addressed it. I don’t have an update to share with you at this time.
This icy response sharply contrasts that given by the State for other ‘American’ journalists killed or captured in the area for whom President Obama’s administration appeared to react with care and criticism, such as with James Foley (who was beheaded by ISIS).
U.S. State Dept. spokesperson Mark Toner released a statement on Thursday concerning the arrests of Dünbar and Gül:
“We are troubled by the pre-trial arrest yesterday of senior editors of the respected Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet.
“The investigation, criminal charges, and arrest raise serious concerns about the Turkish government’s commitment to the fundamental principle of media freedom. These events are only the latest in a series of judicial and law enforcement actions taken under questionable circumstances against Turkish media outlets critical of the government.
“We call on Turkish authorities to ensure that all individuals and organizations — including but not limited to the media — are free to voice a full range of opinions and criticism, in accordance with Turkey’s constitutional guarantees of media freedom and freedom of expression.”
Most troubling in the silencing of Shim, Dünbar, Gül, and now Özkök are the very real consequences the verity of their reports of the Erdoğan government’s complicity in arming and aiding the Islamic State could have in NATO operations in the region. Should their separate, same discoveries have merit — and considering Erdoğan’s swift and heavy-handed reaction, they likely do — Turkey’s agenda stands at cross purposes with the supposed coalition goal of stunting ISIS. Even Vice President Joe Biden implicated Turkish involvement in the ISIS arms trade, though he apologized and essentially recanted that claim shortly afterwards.
Shortly after Shim’s mysterious death, the Daily Mail revealed video of Turkish border police having friendly interactions with ISIS fighters — apparently further evidence supporting the journalists’ claims.
In one of Shim’s final reports from her investigation, she revealed local Turkish populations near the Syrian border simply want an end to fighting. She disclosed many refugee camps in that border region were, in actuality, training camps for militants.
In interviews with local residents, it became clear Erdoğan’s stance on Assad — whom they claim the president used to call “our brother” — sharply reversed after consulting with U.S. officials.
According to Shim, locals stated, “We want Turkey and Syria to be friends again. We want the Syrian militants outside of Turkey’s territory.” She also explained locals “blame their government for the entire chaos taking place across the border [in Syria], calling their Prime Minister a ‘puppet of Israel and the United States.’”
Perhaps Voltaire said it best:
“To determine the true rulers of any society, all you must do is ask yourself this question: Who is it that I am not permitted to criticize?”