COLOGNE, Germany – Facing harassment, enforced shutdowns and the threat of jail at home, Turkey’s journalists in exile are using Germany as a base to report on political turmoil in their country ahead of Sunday’s referendum.
“We are here because there is no freedom of the press, and no freedom of expression in Turkey anymore,” said Can Dundar, the former editor-in-chief of the respected Cumhuriyet newspaper.
Dundar was convicted of revealing state secrets after he published a report saying that Turkey’s intelligence agency was involved in sending weapons to Syrian rebels. He was jailed for three months and shot at in front of a court house as he was briefing reporters. Dundar was sentenced to prison but left for Germany after he was freed on appeal without travel restrictions.
Now he’s running the bilingual news website Ozguruz in Berlin, with the help of the German nonprofit news organization Correktiv. “Ozguruz” means “We are free” in Turkish.
“There are of course friends and colleagues still struggling in Turkey, but it is a really dangerous task,” Dundar told The Associated Press. “I spent three months in jail and I was shot in front court house, and my only fault was writing the news. So because of that we decided to do this from outside.”
On Sunday, Turks will vote “yes” or “no” to constitutional amendments that would abolish the office of the prime minister and transfer executive powers to the president, something Erdogan’s critics fear would cement his powers and further mold Turkey according to his conservative and pro-Islamic views. Opinion polls suggest he could win by a whisker.
Erdogan has cracked down on the opposition in the wake of an attempted coup in July he blames on followers of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen. In addition to jailing and firing thousands of military and government officials, the government closed some 178 news organizations. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said that Turkey jailed more journalists in 2016 than any other country, with 81 held at the time of the CPJ’s annual prison census.
Journalist Deniz Yucel, who has German and Turkish citizenship, was arrested last month in Turkey on charges of disseminating terrorist propaganda and inciting hatred. He was detained after his reports about a hacker attack on the email account of the country’s energy minister, who is Erdogan’s son-in-law.
Erdogan has accused Yucel of being a German spy and a PKK associate. Germany dismissed Erdogan’s claims as absurd.
Like Dundar, Celal Baslangic, editor-in-chief of Arti TV — which means “TV Plus” — wants to bring fact-based reporting to Turks in Turkey and in Germany. He is operating out of modest offices in an industrial park on the outskirts of Cologne, which has a large Turkish immigrant population.
Germany is home to some 3 million people with Turkish roots. Half of them can vote in Turkey’s referendum. Arti TV recruited several of its technical staff from among Turkish-speakers in Germany, although the journalists tend to be from Turkey itself.
“Our plan with Arti TV is to give a voice for those who do not have a voice or whose voice cannot be heard — and for those who cannot be seen” in Turkey, Baslangic told the AP. “No matter what the outcome and the result of the referendum will be, Turkey is facing a long and dark period of time.”
“If the result is ‘yes’, the time will be longer, harder and bloodier — maybe. If the result is ‘no,’ there will be a small flame and also a bit of hope to be free,” he added. “One day there will be a brighter future anyway.”
Dundar and Baslangic say their goal is to provide objective and reliable news on issues colleagues cannot report on freely at home, such as government corruption and Turkey’s involvement in the civil war in Syria. “It’s our duty and opportunity to publish all those bad stories and give the public what they want to know. This is their right, to know what is going on in their country,” Dundar said.
Dundar says he has not applied for political asylum because he does not expect or want to remain in Germany forever.
“We are citizens of our country and we want to go back to our country,” he said. “We don’t want political asylum, we want a base for a while, and to keep up the struggle from Germany.”
“There will be tough times for all of us but in the end we know from history that no dictatorship can stay at last,” he added. “So we know he must go and we are preparing for this day.”
Sopke reported from Berlin.