Cumhuriyet: A pained history of suppression, assassinations and betrayal


“Of course I am afraid. Only a fool wouldn’t be afraid at such a time,” said Ali Sirmen, a veteran journalist who has spent decades working at Cumhuriyet, whose writers and executives — five of whom remain imprisoned — are on trial facing terror charges.

This is not the first time journalists from Cumhuriyet have faced trial. The newspaper’s long history — it was founded in 1924 and christened by none other than the republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk; “cumhuriyet” is the Turkish word for republic —  is one of “prisons and clampdowns” according to Cumhuriyet’s own wording. The newspaper has been shut down many times, many of its employees imprisoned and six of them were murdered over the course of its 93-year long history.

The 78-year-old Sirmen first started at Cumhuriyet in 1974 and wrote for the newspaper until 1991, when he walked with 80 other journalists in protest of the editorial line adopted by then editor-in-chief Hasan Cemal. After a seven year stint at the then-mainstream Milliyet, Sirmen returned to Cumhuriyet in 1998.

Sirmen was imprisoned both after the 12 March 1971 and 12 September 1980 military coups for his writing. He has seen both civilian and military prisons. He was eventually acquitted both times, but only after serving time in prison.

“If I had stayed 20 more days in prison in the 12 September period, I would have completed the sentence they were seeking for me,” he remembers. “The practice of pretrial detention as punishment for journalists started in those times,” Sirmen said.

Keeping up appearances

According to Sirmen, trial proceedings of military eras were mostly a show, but they were still less farcical than the courtrooms of post-15 July Turkey. “They [the courts of military rule periods] at least tried to keep up appearances. They abided by established procedures; here, there is no such concern at all.”

“As someone who knows the prisons of the coup periods, I have said many times that the situation is much worse today. For example, when I was acquitted in the Madanoğlu trial [in which Sirmen was accused of supporting a failed coup in 1971] the Military Court of Cassation overruled our convictions twice in spite of pressure from the military regime. Can such a thing happen today?” he asked.

Hasan Cemal, the editor-in-chief whom Sirmen walked out on in 1991, agrees. “Cumhuriyet was shut down during both coup periods; saw immense levels of crackdowns, its writers were imprisoned many times, but not to the extent that we see today.”

Like Sirmen, Cemal agrees that the judiciary tried to act in compliance with the law despite pressure. “There was no rule of law in the 12 September period; true, but to a certain extent, there was a state that heeded laws. We don’t have that anymore.”

A secular, forward-looking newspaper

But Cemal doesn’t believe in comparisons. “It might be misleading comparing one grievance with another. If journalism is considered a crime in our day, if freedom of expression is being trampled under feet, if the media today has only one voice, what good would it do to compare this horrible situation with the 12 March or 12 September period?”

Although the two journalists might have locked horns in the past, both name “belief in democracy, secularism and the rule of law” as the definitive values which Cumhuriyet stands for. Both of them also agree that it is precisely why the newspaper, which is doing poorly both financially and in terms of circulation, has come under attack. Why would anyone bother to silence an apparently moribund newspaper?

“The way Cumhuriyet views secularism, democracy, the supremacy of law, freedoms and human rights; its face is turned towards the west; all of these are unacceptable for the Erdoğan mentality. Because if Cumhuriyet is the west, then Erdoğan is the east,” according to Cemal. [/vc_column_text][vc_separator color=”black”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Media freedom is under threat worldwide. Journalists are threatened, jailed and even killed simply for doing their job.” font_container=”tag:h3|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes” link=”|||”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship monitors media freedom in Turkey and 41 other European area nations.

As of 8/9/2017, there were 522 verified violations of press freedom associated with Turkey in the Mapping Media Freedom database.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship campaigns against laws that stifle journalists’ work. We also publish an award-winning magazine featuring work by and about censored journalists. Support our work today.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_separator color=”vista_blue”][vc_column_text]A game of thrones

The incident in which dozens of writers left Cumhuriyet en masse in protest of Cemal in 1991 was not the first episode of ideological shifts in the newspaper’s history manifested as a show-down. In fact, the newspaper is notorious for infighting, which, this time, gave the prosecutors material to base the current trial on. In fact, two reporters whose testimonies were included in the indictment still work at the newspaper and they will testify in Monday’s trial.

On 2 April 2013, the Cumhuriyet Foundation — which appoints the editor-in-chief of the newspaper — saw a change of guard: a more liberal group, as opposed to the traditionally hard-line Kemalist executives, was elected to the seats on the foundation’s executive board.  Testimony from some of the former board members are also included in the indictment, and these individuals will also testify — most likely against the defendants — in the hearings that begin on 11 September.

The new foundation team, the prosecutor says, hired columnists and allowed reporting that served the purposes of the Fethullah Gülen Network, which is referred to as a terrorist organisation by Turkish courts.

A legal battle over the foundation’s leadership is still ongoing and pro-government media has openly sided with the old guard at Cumhuriyet. That is a separate case, but Cumhuriyet being forcefully returned to its previous executives is not a far-fetched possibility.

A brief history of government pressure on Cumhuriyet

Detentions and arrests

Detention and imprisonment of Cumhuriyet journalists go back a long way. In one of the notable cases in 1962, contributor Şadi Alkılıç and editor Kayhan Sağlamer were arrested and imprisoned over an article published in Cumhuriyet praising socialism. Alkılıç was acquitted in 1967 after a higher court overruled his sentence handed down over socialism propaganda.

İlhan Selçuk, one of the newspaper’s iconic names, who was also the founder of the Cumhuriyet Foundation, and the then editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Oktay Kurtböke, and several other Cumhuriyet writers were detained after the 12 March 1971 coup d’état — along with several others. Selçuk was subject to torture in prison in this period, where he and his fellow defendants were accused of supporting a failed coup attempt that would have taken place three days prior to the actual coup.

Ali Sirmen, Erdal Atabek and Ataol Behramoğlu were imprisoned by the courts of the 1982 military regime for membership of the left-wing Peace Association.

More recently, in 2008, the newspaper’s Ankara Bureau Chief Mustafa Balbay was imprisoned in an investigation into Ergenekon, a behind-the-scenes network which allegedly plotted to overthrow the AKP government, according to the prosecutor. Columnist Erol Manisalı was also arrested in the same investigation in 2009; he was released after three months in prison. İlhan Selçuk was also detained in the same investigation.

In May 2016, the newspaper’s former editor-in-chief Can Dündar and Ankara Bureau Chief Erdem Gül were arrested over a news story which suggested that the Turkish government sent weapons and ammunition to armed jihadist groups in Syria.

Outside the current case, Oğuz Güven, editor of the newspaper’s internet edition, was imprisoned for a month when for a headline used describing the accidental death of a prosecutor who led investigations into the 15 July 2016 failed coup.


The newspaper was shut down for the first time on October 29 1934 for 10 days. Then it was shuttered for 90 days in 1940 over its publications that went against the official line of the government. After the 12 March 1971 coup d’état, it was shuttered for 10 days. It was shut down twice following the September 12 1980 coup d’état in Turkey by the military junta, first over an article by İlhan Selçuk, which praised “Kemalizm” and later over a book written by the newspaper’s chief columnist and owner  Nadir Nadi.


Cumhuriyet journalists have also faced fatal attacks. Six Cumhruiyet journalists, all of whom were known for their staunch secularist views, have been killed since 1978. Columnist Server Tanilli, an Istanbul University academic, was left paralysed following an armed attack on 7 April 1978.  Cumhuriyet columnist Cavit Orhan Tütengil was assassinated on 7 December 1979 while waiting for a public bus.

The newspaper also took its share of the violence at the height of Turkey’s unsolved murders — which are commonly believed to be state sponsored– in the 1990s. Columnist Muammer Aksoy, who was also the president of the Atatürkist Thought Assassination, was shot dead while he was on his way home in Ankara in 1990. Socialist columnist Bahriye Üçok was killed by a bomb package sent to her house on 6 October 1990. Investigative journalist Uğur Mumcu was killed when a bomb placed in his car detonated on Jan. 24, 1993. Columnist Onat Kutlar died as a result of injuries sustained also in a bomb attack on 30 December 1994. Cumhuriyet’s  Ahmet Taner Kışlalı was also killed in front of his house in a bomb attack in 1999.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1504883275252-0c531056-a363-8″ taxonomies=”7790″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Can Dündar: Turkey is “the biggest prison for journalists in the world”

Can Dundar parliament

Can Dündar, Houses of Commons, 29 June. Credit: Flickr / Centre for Turkey Studies

Turkish journalist, author and filmmaker Can Dündar spoke at the House of Commons last week about the state of politics and media freedom in Turkey. The event was hosted by the Centre for Turkey Studies and chaired by Scottish Liberal Democrat peer Lord Jeremy Purvis of Tweed.

“I’ve come from the biggest prison for journalists in the world,” Dündar told the audience. “There are close to 40 journalists imprisoned in Turkey — we are competing with China.”

Dündar, the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, was sentenced to five years and 10 months in prison on 6 May 2016, just hours after a failed attempt on his life by a gunman. Along with Cumhuriyet journalist Erdem Gül, he was convicted of “leaking secret state information” for the paper’s reports claiming that Turkey was sending weapons to Islamists in Syria.

The pair were arrested and detained in November 2015, just days before a meeting of the EU heads of state with Turkey, the first meeting of its kind in almost six decades. “Turkey was not on the agenda because it was a democratic country, but because of the need for Turkey regarding the migrant issue,” Dündar explained.

Although he has been out of prison since February 2016, when he returns to Turkey — which he defiantly said he will — he risks serving his sentence.

Watching from his TV in solitary confinement during his stint in prison, Dündar learned of the deal that Turkey would keep asylum seekers from crossing into Europe, and in return the country would receive €3bn and visa exemptions.

Asylum seekers were “held hostage” by Turkey, Dündar said. “I was waiting until the end of the conference hoping there would be some mention of the free press, but there was nothing.”

He has been a journalist for 35 years, working in television and in print. “Throughout all these years working in the media, it has never been a paradise, but I don’t think it’s ever been quite as hellish as it is at the moment,” Dündar added. “We face oppression and censorship.”

The EU was due to release a report on Turkey’s lack of press freedom just weeks before the summit and in time for the Turkish general election. Dündar told the audience that following a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and EU officials, the report was delayed until after the general election.

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party achieved electoral victory and a week later, the report was published. “The human rights record of Turkey was condemned in strong terms,” Dündar said.

“For those of us who grew up in Turkey, in view of the Western, democratic ideals, this was very disappointing,” Dündar told the audience. “Europe is a great ideal, something to aim for.”

Dündar has lived through three military coups in Turkey. “Back then there was serious censorship,” he said. “But Erdoğan has succeeded in doing something the military couldn’t: he has instructed the media moguls close to him to buy up newspapers and TV stations, establishing a coup of friendly media.”

Dündar explains that these Erdoğan-friendly groups — mainly rich civil engineering companies receiving favours from the president — control 60% of the media, while opposition media make up only about 5-10% of the market.

Critics of Erdogan face further financial difficulty in the form of harsh fines for “insulting” Erdogan — of which there have been over 3,000 cases. “The president takes any criticism as an insult,” Dündar explained, joking: “He is the most insulted president in the world.”

Critical media outlets also find it difficult to generate revenue through advertising because “any company advertising with us will also face sanction”. The media faces further pressures in the form of “severe tax bills” and the intimidation of journalists to “toe the line”.

When journalists like Dündar aren’t visiting colleagues in prison and attending court cases in support of friends, they are preparing for their own hearings. And while they often win international awards for their work, “we can’t eat those so we have to create resources”.

Although the situation in Turkey looks unpromising, Dündar told the audience to remember that “there is another Turkey that believes in democracy and secularism”. There exists a “great existential struggle” and the aim for those like him “is to overcome this fear, but we have to be brave and we have to unite”.

In this struggle, Dündar asked the people of Europe for “support and solidarity” before Turkey “becomes a fascist regime”. He called on the Western media to do more to draw attention to the crimes of Erdoğan.


Ryan McChrystal is the assistant online editor at Index on Censorship

Truth and the public interest are forbidden in Turkey

Journalists Erdem Gül and Can Dündar (Photo: Bianet)

Journalists Erdem Gül and Can Dündar in November 2015 (Photo: Bianet)

The sentencing of journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül to years in prison for sharing state secrets underscores how Turkey’s government is crushing critical voices. The trial follows Dündar and Gül’s investigative reporting on links between the Turkish intelligence services and arms to Islamist groups in Syria. Dundar has been sentenced to five years and 10 months, and Gul to five years.

Index on Censorship condemns this clearly political ruling and calls for an end to judicial harassment of Dündar, Gül and all journalists in the country. The country’s drastic decline has been well documented by Index’s Mapping Media Freedom project and Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. The closure of the seized Zaman newspaper group is only one recent example of the government’s draconian attitude toward independent media.

“The Turkish government is now resorting to locking up journalists like Dündar and Gül, who sought to reveal information of public interest, something journalists around the world do every day. Yet they are paying a heavy price. The sentencing is an example of an ongoing decline in Turkey’s attitude to freedom. It has entered a new dark age where the truth is forbidden and even a hint of dissent is not tolerated,” Melody Patry, senior advocacy officer, Index on Censorship, said.

From the outset of the case in November 2015, Dündar, the editor-in-chief of daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, and Gül, head of the paper’s Ankara bureau, were accused of spying and terrorism after the paper published evidence in May 2015 of Turkey’s intelligence services’ involvement in Syria’s civil war. In the wake of the revelations, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, publicly declared that Dundar and his paper “will pay for this”.

Dündar nearly paid with his life. Shortly before a court issued his sentence, a man identified in Daily Sabah as Murat Şahin attempted to shoot the editor, but was thwarted by the intervention of Dundar’s wife and an onlooker.

Both Dündar and Gül are free on bail as they appeal their sentences.

Turkey: A long line of press freedom violations

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at a rally in Istanbul, 20 September 2015. Credit: Orlok / Shutterstock

Turkey’s government and courts have demonstrated their unwillingness to adhere to basic values on press freedom and media pluralism. From judicial harassment and seizing media companies to silencing Kurdish and critical media, Turkey’s government has been used by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to silence critical voices in the country.

The European Charter on Freedom of the Press is a non-binding guideline on press freedom, signed on 25 May 2009 in Hamburg by 48 editors-in-chief and leading journalists from 19 European countries. It consists of 10 articles on media freedom, and if we take it as an ideal for which countries should operate, we see no country in the EU is perfect. However, Turkey finds itself in a unique position of being consistently in breach of every single one on an almost weekly basis.

  • Article 1
    Freedom of the press is essential to a democratic society. To uphold and protect it, and to respect its diversity and its political, social and cultural missions, is the mandate of all governments.

Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom has verified over 200 violations of media freedom in Turkey since the project began in May 2014. The seizure of the Zaman Media Group, which owns Zaman and Today’s Zaman, on 4 March was just the latest in a long line of assaults against media diversity in the country. Any respect for diversity seemed to be dispersed like the crowds of supporters who gathered at Zaman’s headquarters, who were then set upon by police with water cannons and tear gas.

  • Article 2
    Censorship is impermissible. Independent journalism in all media is free of persecution and repression, without a guarantee of political or regulatory interference by government. Press and online media shall not be subject to state licensing.

A day after the takeover of Zaman, trustees were appointed by the authorities to Cihan News Agency in another bid to silence criticism of Erdogan. Cihan said on its website late on Monday 7 March that an Istanbul court would appoint an administrator to run the agency on a request from a state prosecutor. Interference by the government is now systemic in the Turkish media.

  • Article 3
    The right of journalists and media to gather and disseminate information and opinions must not be threatened, restricted or made subject to punishment.

Opposition journalists are routinely punished in Turkey. Barış İnce, a former editor of Birgün who still writes for the leftist daily, was sentenced on 8 March to 21 months in prison for “insulting” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A week previously, on 2 March, journalist Arzu Yıldız attended a hearing at Ankara criminal court for “insulting” Erdogan, former Justice Minister Kenan İpek and Justice Minister Undersecretary Basri Bağcı. Yıldız explained that she is being tried for a retweet, and not for something that she personally wrote. 

  • Article 4
    The protection of journalistic sources shall be strictly upheld. Surveillance of, electronic eavesdropping on or searches of newsrooms, private rooms or journalists’ computers with the aim of identifying sources of information or infringing on editorial confidentiality are unacceptable.

On 9 February, Claus Blok Thomsen, a Danish journalist working for daily newspaper Politiken, was detained by Turkish authorities at the Istanbul airport and then barred from entering Turkey. He was travelling to the country to report on refugees at the Turkish-Syrian border. At the airport, Thomsen allegedly identified himself as a journalist and then the police forced him to open his phone and computer, undermining the confidentiality of his sources

  • Article 5
    All states must ensure that the media have the full protection of the law and the authorities while carrying out their role. This applies in particular to defending journalists and their employees from harassment and/or physical attack. Threats to or violations of these rights must be carefully investigated and punished by the judiciary.

Rather than having the full protection of the law, Turkish journalists often find themselves at its mercy. Nineteen journalists have so far been arrested or detained in the country this year alone, many of them on terror-related charges. This includes Nazım Daştan, a reporter for Dicle News Agency (DİHA), which reports in Kurdish, who was charged with spreading terrorist propaganda on Facebook in February. 

  • Article 6
    The economic livelihood of the media must not be endangered by the state or by state-controlled institutions. The threat of economic sanctions is also unacceptable. Private-sector companies must respect the journalistic freedom of the media. They shall neither exert pressure on journalistic content nor attempt to mix commercial content with journalistic content.

Threats to the economic livelihood of the media are commonplace in Turkey. On 3 November 2015, 58 journalists were dismissed from İpek Media Group when it was unlawfully seized in a government-led police operation in late October. Sound familiar? When Zaman was taken over, editor-in-chief Abdülhamit Bilici was fired without remuneration by the new trustees. Many other members of staff were let go also.

  • Article 7
    State or state-controlled institutions shall not hinder the freedom of access of the media and journalists to information. They have a duty to support them in their mandate to provide information.

Mapping Media Freedom routinely reports on instances where journalists have been denied access to information. Most recently, German reporter Frank Nordhausen, a correspondent for the Berlin-based Berliner Zeitung, was arrested while covering the takeover of Zaman. Other journalists exercising their right to report were set on by police.

  • Article 8
    Media and journalists have a right to unimpeded access to all news and information sources, including those from abroad. For their reporting, foreign journalists should be provided with visas, accreditation and other required documents without delay.

Turkish authorities rejected a permanent press accreditation application filed by Norwegian daily Aftenposten’s correspondent Silje Rønning Kampesæter, on 9 February 2016. Turkish authorities have not issued any written statement on the reason for the rejection. The application also affects her residence permit in Turkey. 

  • Article 9
    The public of any state shall be granted free access to all national and foreign media and sources of information.

Over the past two decades, right to know laws have become commonplace in the European Union. In Turkey, the principle has yet to catch on. In the wake of the bomb that ripped through Ankara killing 37 people on Monday, Erdogan’s government moved to block Facebook and Twitter as part of a media ban. Domestically, blanket media bans are becoming more common in Turkish media. On 17 February, the government rushed out a temporary broadcast ban after another deadly blast in Ankara. Similar measures were taken the month previously as well.

  • Article 10
    The government shall not restrict entry into the profession of journalism.

This week, Erdogan has claimed the definition of a terrorist should be changed to include terrorist “supporters”. It was clear who the president had in mind: “Their titles as an MP, an academic, an author, a journalist do not change the fact they are actually terrorists.” By treating critical journalists like terrorists, Erdogan is effectively redefining their profession. 

Recent examples include the holding of Cumhuriyet newspaper editor Can Dundar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul in pre-trial detention on charges of revealing state secrets and attempting to overthrow the government. This was not an isolated incident.

Sign Index on end Turkey’s crackdown on press freedom.


Verified incidents against the media and journalists reported to Mapping Media Freedom between May 2014 and 9 March 2016:

March 2016

February 2016

January 2016

December 2015

November 2015

October 2015

September 2015

August 2015

July 2015

June 2015

May 2015

April 2015

March 2015

February 2015

January 2015

December 2014

November 2014

October 2014

September 2014

August 2014

July 2014

June 2014

May 2014