An Istanbul court has charged two Turkish journalists with espionage and aiding a terrorist organisation for publishing a story which claimed that Turkey's secret services had sent arms to Islamist rebels in Syria. The lawsuit was filed by none other than President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in which he alleged that the daily Cumhuriyet had engaged in acts of espionage by publishing what authorities considered a false claim. The journalists, Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief, and Erdem Gul, the paper's Ankara bureau chief, could face life imprisonment if found guilty.
"Don't worry, this ruling is nothing but a badge of honour to us. They ask us why we published that story. The history of journalism is full of such examples as Watergate or Wikileaks that show states would like to keep some facts secret. But it's for common good to bring them to light," Dundar, who denied the allegations, told reporters. The charges have also been heavily criticised by press freedom groups which said cases like these could seriously damage Turkey's pledge to carry out EU reforms and the promised standards of fundamental rights and freedoms.
Press freedom has been criticised in Turkey specially since Erdogan took over. Last month the Turkish police arrested the editor of Zaman for posting tweets allegedly 'insulting' Erdogan.
In August, two British journalists and an Iraqi fixer working for Vice News who were reporting on anti-government unrest in the Kurdish-dominated south-east, were charged by a Turkish judge of "engaging in terrorist activity" on behalf of the Islamic State. Although the journalists were later released, the Iraqi translator was kept in detention.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) secretary general Christophe Deloire criticised the current judgement and told AFP, "If these two journalists are imprisoned, it will be additional evidence that the Turkish authorities are ready to use methods worthy of a bygone age in order to suppress independent journalism in Turkey." The Cumhuriyet daily was awarded the media watchdog's 2015 Press Freedom Prize just last week.
The newspaper had published footage on its website in May in which it showed gendarmerie opening crates of what it described as weapons and ammunition on the back of three trucks belonging to Turkey's secret service, Millî İstihbarat Teşkilat (MIT), that were headed for Syria. Turkey's interior ministry, however, denied the allegations and said the trucks were in reality conveying humanitarian aid to the Turkmen community in the war-torn country.
The video published was from 19 January, 2014 but the paper did not say how it had obtained the footage. In addition, photographs were published by the daily which showed several vehicles filled with weapons and ammunition, stacked under boxes that had been labelled as 'medication'.
Furious over the allegations, Erdogan had said: "This paper has engaged in acts of espionage. Whoever wrote this story will pay a heavy price for this. I will not let this go." He said despite a national security law forbidding such a search, the officers who had no authority to search MIT vehicles still went ahead. The case saw the arrests of 26 soldiers.
Erdogan had said the action was on the orders of what he calls a "parallel state" run by his ally-turned-foe Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Islamic cleric who Erdogan says is bent on discrediting him and the government. He accused the paper of abetting Gulen's movement and vowed to charge them for spying.
The judgment has come at a time when Russia has accused Turkey of abetting terrorism after it gunned down a war plane on the Syria-Turkey border recently.