Stephen Sackur talks to Can Dündar, who has experienced imprisonment, violence and exile after publishing material which infuriated the Turkish president.
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Now on BBC News,
it's time for HARDtalk.
Welcome to HARDtalk.
I'm Stephen Sackur.
More than 150 journalists are
currently imprisoned in Turkey.
President Erdogan government stands
accused of an all-out assault on
freedom of expression. My guest
today is Can Dundar who as
life-threatening violence and ex-
owl in the last couple of years,
after publishing material which
infuriated the Turkish president. In
the battle for Turkish future and
its soul, who is a winning?
Can Dundar, welcome to HARDtalk.
You live in Germany,
you would like to live in Turkey
but it's not possible.
Do you feel a sense of freedom
in Germany that you could not enjoy
in your last period inside Turkey?
You can't really feel as a free man
while your friends are in jail,
your family is under,
you know, away from you and,
at the same time, you are threatened
by a very despotic government.
If you are seen as a threat
by the government,
you can't be free, feel free
everywhere in the world,
nowhere in the world.
Do you have security right now?
Of course, part of your story over
the last couple of years is not just
arrest and imprisonment but also
there was an attempt on your life.
Do you feel secure in Germany?
Because Turkish intelligence
is so active in Germany
and there are a lot
of pro-government people,
living in Germany,
and that's why there
is a huge campaign against me
by the Turkish government,
that's why it's a kind of...
Um, it's not the safest place
in the world, Germany...
Do you have security?
Yeah, I do have security.
If I do something in public,
they come and protect me.
I suppose your story is very much
about your relationship
with President Erdogan,
and the two of you have known
of each other for an awful
long time and, indeed,
I am interested to go back
in time to the early 2000s,
when you wrote about Erdogan
in a pretty favourable manner.
You described yourself as
"cautiously optimistic" about him.
You said that "here is a man
who stands up to the military".
Do you think, in retrospect, that
you totally misunderstood the man?
I guess he was pretending
like he was a democrat all those
years and he had a plan
from the beginning and he convinced
many Turkish liberals,
together with Western governments
that he's a democrat and he's trying
to get the Turkish army bac
that he's a democrat and he's trying
to get the Turkish army back
to the barracks again,
and we were also critical
about the Turkish army
being so involved in Turkish
politics that's why someone
who was promising to get the army
back to the barracks was, you know,
we should give him a chance
but we knew that he was not
a democrat because he said already
during...as as a governor
of Istanbul, back to 1996,
he said democracy is not my main
aim, it is just a tool to get me
to the main aim.
Let's get to the unfolding of events
in more recent times.
You knew that, as the century
proceded, we got to 2010,
2012, that Erdogan was showing
a much more authoritarian streak
in his rule.
But you took some rash decisions.
I mean, for example,
when you became editor in chief
of Cumhuriyet, you must have known
that breaking this story in 2015
about the Turkish government
smuggling arms over the border
to rebels in Syria, you must have
known that running that story
would put an enormous strain,
to say the least,
on your relationship
with the government?
Of course, we knew it.
In a way, we were expecting it.
Because, as a journalist, of course,
you must be realistic about this
but what would you do?
I mean, you have a story,
which is true,
your government is doing
and hiding it and naming it as state
secrets and you are a journalist,
and you are a journalist,
this is your duty...
Well, it was a state secret,
clearly it was a state secret,
it it was a covert operation,
nobody was supposed to do about it.
That is the point
of covert operations.
It was Turkey's Iran gate.
It was Turkey's Irangate.
In a way, it was not a state secret
it was the secret of Erdogan
so he was trying to get involved
in the Syrian war in an illegal way.
Well, put yourself in the shoes of
a journalist in a different country.
I mean, frankly, if a British
journalist had tried to dig deep
into the affairs of military
intelligence in the UK,
or the same thing in
the United States,
they would have run
into serious trouble.
We have something called
the Official Secrets Act.
Have you seen the film The Post?
I have seen the film The Post,
which concerns Vietnam
and the uncovering of
the Pentagon papers.
So they were right
to publish the story.
It's more or less
the same story with us,
with a very different
But, I mean, this is our duty
to inform the public
about this kind of danger.
Well, yes, but presumably as a Turk
you also have an obligation
and a duty to consider things
Turkish military personnel or others
at risk and you do know
that the Turkish government insisted
that what you had uncovered
was not gunrunning to rebels
but was actually the transfer of aid
and assistance to Turkmen civilians.
The Turkish government wanted
to help the Turkmen civilian
population inside Turkey.
That is what Mr Erdogan said.
That's what they said but
the Turkmen denied this allegation.
They said they did not get aid
from this and we knew that Turkey
had a very a close contact
with the Islamic guerrillas in Syria
and we were opposing it.
So that's what it was important.
But, again, to be fair
to the Turkish government,
you went through due process.
Erdogan we know
was furious with you.
He described what you did
as espionage and said,
"those who wrote that
will be punished"
but he did not do it himself.
He filed a complaint
and the courts took it up
and you were tried
in a court of law.
Exactly and, unfortunately,
the courts are all controlled
That's your opinion.
Yeah, I mean, so when he ordered
a kind of complaint,
or defined me as a traitor or a spy,
no judge can, you know,
decide the other way.
You spent 92 days in prison
in the course of the legal process
before the actual conviction.
What were those 92 days like?
I was in solitary confinement.
In a way I was ready
because if you are a journalist
in Turkey, you must be ready
for any kind of insults,
even being killed
so psychologically I felt ready.
Immediately I start working,
writing, and tried to give a voice
to the words that something
is going on in the country.
to the world that something
is going on in the country.
See that's what strikes me
about Turkey, it's complex
to make sense of the nature
of the authoritarianism
that we talk about in Turkey
because there you sit in prison,
Erdogan has declared
you an enemy of the State
and yet you are free to write,
you're free to express your opinion,
you can get that opinion
to the outside world.
I mean, this isn't exactly
North Korea, is it?
With our government it was
difficult, it was not easy to do it.
You can do everything in Turkey
but the price is high.
You must be brave enough to do it.
If you are ready to pay the price,
you are free to do it.
You are free to write,
you are free to talk
but the price is really high
so you can spend your whole
life in jail.
Well, that is a very interesting way
to put it the price is very high.
In the end you chose to avoid paying
some of that inevitable price by,
when you were released
on appeal, you fled.
You were invited to Germany
to receive a journalistic price
You were invited to Germany
to receive a journalistic prize
and you decided not to go back.
Partly true because after I was
released I spent five months
in Turkey, I got back to my job
again, but it was summer time
and I went on holiday
to Spain, in fact,
then this military coup attempt has
happened in Turkey,
then the rule of law was lifted.
And my lawyers advised me to stay
away from the country
for a while and that's why
I decided to stay in Germany.
Was it partly out of fear
because I referred earlier
to an attempt on your life.
A gunman approached you outside
the court one day and,
miraculously, you survived,
even though he tried to shoot
you at very close range.
But was it fear that drove you out
of Turkey in the end?
Of course, otherwise...
Being in jail doesn't matter,
you can stay in jail
for a while but if your life
is in danger, of course,
you should think twice.
It wasn't the Turkish
state though, was it?
There has been a legal proceedings
against the government
There has been a legal
proceedings against the gunman
and there is no connection,
it seems, between him and the state.
He said that he was inspired
by the accusations of the statesman
and he is free now,
with his passport in his pocket.
That clearly is a bitter
thing for you to swallow.
Of course, and my wife hasn't got
a passport but he has.
You talk about your wife, Dilek,
she is in Turkey she is not
free to travel.
She has been stopped
from visiting you in Germany.
Yes, she was stopped at the airport
without any accusation.
There is no accusation against her.
No investigation and she has done
nothing other than marry me...
How hard is that because you have no
prospect of going home.
She has no prospect
of leaving Turkey.
This is the price
I was talking about.
So this is part of the deal
and he loves taking hostages
and he tries to punish me by keeping
the family away from each other.
This is a strange word to use but do
you feel a sense of guilt
about your situation
because you are now in Germany,
you are here in the UK,
a play is being produced about some
of your experiences, you know,
you are something of a well-known
figure now in the Western media
and yet your wife is stuck in Turkey
but more than that,
many of your colleagues
on the Cumhuriyet newspaper
are facing more legal proceedings.
Many of them, I think 16 of them,
have been in prison since you got
out of the country.
They are 150 journalists
in all currently in prison,
thousands have lost their jobs -
do you feel awkward about being
outside of Turkey?
Yes of course.
If I was in Turkey and would be
in jail or in the cemetery so...
But I'm not silent, I am
still struggling for something.
I am still writing and talking
about my country and defending our
freedom, our democracy so I really
believe in the future so,
in Turkey, I wouldn't be so vocal
but now I have the opportunity
to talk to people in
the world about Turkey.
Yes, we interviewed
Mr Erdogan last year
This is what he said
about the accusation that he has
repressed freedom of expression
systematically in his country.
He said, "no one is jailed
because of journalism.
Right now in Turkey there are many
opposition journalist can write
a lot of things, all kinds
of articles, all kinds of insults,
and they are still out
there and those who are in jail,
well, they are criminals.
They have no title as journalists."
So I have been working
as a journalist for more than
35 years now and convicted
as a terrorist.
There are a lot of journalists
like me so in his eyes,
if you're criticising
the government, you are a terrorist
and that is why he won't accept,
he doesn't accept that there
are journalists in jail
because in his eyes they are not
journalists but they
They are my friends and my
colleagues and they have done
nothing but write and
criticise the government.
Explain to me how
Mr Erdogan is still,
according to the opinion polls,
by far the most popular
politician in Turkey.
Explain to me how it looks as though
he can expect to be in power
because of that popularity
until, perhaps, 2029.
The man dominates Turkey
despite all the things you say
about him, he is the man.
He is the man.
Imagine yourself in his shoe,
but the president when you're
determined to dominate
the government, the Parliament
the media, businesses.
You are the Sultan, you're not
allowed to make a demonstration
against the government.
It must be so easy
to run such a country.
It must be so easy to run such a
Is there not also a
question about you and your
colleagues in the secular liberal
progressive media? For all of your
bravery and courage, and I do not
belittle that in any way, you appear
to be out of touch with many of your
countrymen and women.
should be the other way around, how
come, in these circumstances, half
of these people are still resisting
him in such a country under these
circumstances? Really, I mean, it is
very surprising for us to see 50% of
the people voted against him in the
last referendum. It is bravery.
about Fethullah Gulen and the
idea... Again, the Turkish state is
clear about this. The idea that
Gulen and his networks, and we saw
it manifested in the idea he was
behind the coup of 2015, he is
trying to undermine democracy and
they are trying to corrupt those
I guess this is one of
the issues that I agree with him.
Are you a Gulenist?
I agree with
Erdogan. If someone is a Gulenist in
Turkey, number one is Erdogan.
Together, they run the country, for
years. And Gulen was in charge of
the theocracy, universities, media,
and the university system, and
Erdogan was in charge of the money.
We work reciting both of them. And
is now Erdogan says Gulen is not the
right guy to partner with.
He has to
do something. To quote the Turkish
Foreign Minister a few days ago, he
said we are going through a
necessary face to make sure Gulenist
members, including sleeper cells,
are removed from all positions of
power in the media, business, and
academia. It is a painful process,
he said, but we act within the law.
Ha, within the law. They inserted
them into the state. They made it.
And now the creator attacks the
creator. It is a Frankenstein story.
And now they are accusing us of
being Gulenists. Everyone opposing
the government nowadays is branded a
Gulenist. That is the thing. I have
nothing to do with them. The outside
world looks at this and sometimes
they are confused about what is
happening in Turkey. Would you say
you have been gravely disappointed
with the reaction of the EU, for
example, in these months, in terms
of what you want to see, isolation
and condemnation of Erdogan.
Definitely. I am so much deeply
disappointed by the institutes of
Western governments. That is due to
the refugee crisis, in fact...
need Mr Erdogan...
They do not want
to annoy him. They want someone to
take refugees in Turkey. They made a
dirty deal with Erdogan, and that
was they kept a closed eye to his
aggression and in turn he kept
refugees in Turkey.
You say a dirty
deal, others say practical politics.
To quote the former EU Commissioner,
he said at the end of last year, in
the midst of this negotiation, what
Turkey could do to stem the flow of
refugees into Europe, he said the EU
needs Turkey more than Turkey needs
the EU right now.
What about democracy? We have been
fighting for so-called "Western
ideals" like equality for men and
women, democracy, and so on. To see
European leaders at the other side,
it is really disappointing. They
should be supporting democracy in
Turkey, but instead, umm, they just
You are in a difficult
position because on the one hand you
seem to be idling for the isolation
of Erdogan by the EU, and surely the
whole point of the position is that
you want bridges to be built between
the EU and Turkey. What messages are
sending if Turkey was completely
Turkey is not akin to
Erdogan. Erdogan should be isolated,
Turkey should not. It is not only
Erdogan. The opponents, the freedom
fighters in Turkey, Democrats, and,
you know, 50% of Turkey.
asking the EU to interfere in
Turkish internal affairs.
No, I do
not expect anything from the
European governments. Take British
artists trying to give a hand to
Turkish democracy by, you know,
playing something about Turkey. And
some publishing houses playing, you
know, publishing books about Turkey.
Accepting Turkish academics. And
trade unions, parties,
organisations, I am talking about
this. Do not isolate Turkey, make it
a member in this family.
That is a
very interesting point you are
making. I know you are here to work
in a play called "We Are Arrested",
based on a memoir you wrote in
prison. A Shakespeare company is
putting it on as a play in the UK.
How important is that sort of
cultural messaging, and reaching out
across the world for you today? Does
it make your life worth living?
Yeah. This is a lifelong experience.
It was a testimony, my book. I got a
call from the Royal Shakespeare
Company saying we just want to make
a play out of this.
Do you think it
will make a difference?
It is a very important message. And
at the same time, it is a kind of
Anushka and for the aggressive
government saying that art is much
more valuable than your daily
politics. It will stay for years.
But what about Erdogan?
that in prison, so there is no
doubting your determination to keep
talking and expressing yourself if
there. But surely at times you have
to think that your wife is still
stuck inside Turkey, you have other
family inside Turkey, are you in
anyway self censoring because you
are so concerned about them?
important question. Umm, at least
you have to think twice what you are
writing and what you talk about. I
talk to my wife and she said OK,
talk about me, because this is our
struggle. But of course, this is the
logic of taking hostages. If your
friends are in jail, your family is
there, of course you have to think
twice. That is a kind of censorship.
Do you think you will ever be able
to live with your wife again?
course. I am so hopeful about
Turkey's feature. And we are coming
to the end of this darkest dower. --
future. -- hour. Unfortunately,
Turkey is a missing...
How can you
say that with so much optimism as we
have discussed that Erdogan's grip
on your country is tighter than
But on the other hand, we have
half of the people resisting. And
just on Women's Day, streets were
full of women resisting even if it
is dangerous and risky for them.
This country will not surrender.
That is why I am so optimistic about
Can Dundar, thank you
for coming in HARDtalk.
More than 150 journalists are currently in prison in Turkey. President Erdogan's government stands accused of an all-out assault on freedom of expression. Stephen Sackur talks to Can Dündar, former editor of the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, who has experienced imprisonment, life threatening violence and exile in the last couple of years after publishing material which infuriated the Turkish president. In the battle for Turkey's future and its soul, who is winning?