Turkey: Journalist Can Dündar could face further defamation charges

RAN 04/15 Update #1 – 27 February 2015

PEN International is deeply concerned by the growing campaign of judicial harassment faced by writer, journalist and documentary filmmaker Can Dündar. Dündar, who was recently appointed as the new editor-in-chief of the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, was questioned today on suspicion of presidential defamation; an offence which carries a sentence of up to four years and eight months in prison under the Turkish Penal Code. The criminal investigation comes after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan submitted an official complaint about an interview conducted by Dündar with one of the prosecutors who led a December 2013 investigation into alleged corruption amongst Erdoğan’s inner circle.

Dündar was questioned after a morning hearing at the Çağlayan Courts of Justice, where he is being tried for criminal defamation in a separate case brought by President Erdoğan and his son Bilal. This ongoing trial relates to a series of articles that Dündar wrote while Erdoğan was still prime minister in July 2014, in which he questioned the handling of the December 2013 corruption investigation. Dündar could face over nine years in prison if found guilty in both cases. PEN International opposes the criminalisation of defamation in all cases and once again calls on the Turkish authorities to drop all investigations, charges and draconian prison sentences being sought against Dündar for his legitimate expression as a journalist and political commentator.

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Send a message of support:

Please email your messages of support for Can Dündar to alev.yaman [at] pen-international [dot] org and we will pass them on for you.

Please send appeals:

  • Calling on the Turkish authorities to decriminalise defamation including against the president, and to drop the cases against Can Dündar;
  • Reminding them that the limits of acceptable criticism of politicians and senior public officials are wider than for private individuals, as has been determined repeatedly in international law such as in the case of Tuşalp v Turkey before the European Court of Human Rights;
  • Reminding them that Turkey has the obligation to respect the right to freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which it is a state party.

In your letters to the President, please also:

  • Ask him to stop bringing criminal defamation cases against writers and journalists engaging in legitimate political criticism.

Appeals to:

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Cumhurbaşkanlığı Sarayı
06560, Beştepe
Ankara, Turkey
Fax: +90 312 525 58 31
Email: cumhurbaskanligi [at] tccb.gov [dot] tr
Twitter: @RT_Erdogan

Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdağ
Milli Müdafaa Caddesi No: 22
06659, Kızılay
Ankara, Turkey
Fax: +90 312 419 33 70
Email: bekir.bozdag [at] tbmm.gov [dot] tr; ozelkalem [at] adalet.gov [dot] tr
Twitter: @bybekirbozdag

And copy to the Embassy of Turkey in your country. You can find embassy addresses here.


Can Dündar is a writer, journalist and documentary filmmaker who has become one of Turkey’s most prominent voices in a career spanning more than three decades. He is well known for his literary work as well as for a series of biographies and documentaries regarding key figures in Turkish history, including the founder of the republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the poet Nazım Hikmet and industrialist Vehbi Koç. His 2008 documentary on Atatürk sparked nationwide debate for its depiction of Turkey’s first president as a flawed and troubled leader. Dündar was sacked from his position as a columnist for Milliyet following a series of articles critical of the government during the Gezi Park protests. He has since worked as a columnist for Cumhuriyet and BirGün and was recently appointed as Cumhuriyet’s editor-in-chief. He was featured as a case study in a 2014 PEN report on the Gezi Park protests.

Dündar is currently on trial for two articles he wrote in July 2014 in his column for the daily Cumhuriyet. The first of these articles, ‘Erdoğan’s soft underbelly‘, was published on 1 July 2014, and discussed the possible ramifications of Erdoğan’s presidency. The second article, ‘It is our right to read the police reports‘, was published on 18 July 2014, and criticised the controversial handling of a major police investigation into alleged government corruption (the investigation has since been dropped after a reshuffle of the prosecutors and police officers who initiated it). The public prosecutor is seeking a two year, four month prison sentence for defamation against President Erdoğan and a two year, two month prison sentence for defamation against his son Bilal Erdoğan. President Erdoğan has previously attempted to have Dündar tried for criminal defamation, but a May 2014 complaint was rejected by the public prosecutor.

Dündar made the following comments to the press before today’s hearing:

President Erdoğan is pursuing his own policy of intimidation by bringing these cases; by considering every word, every criticism to be defamation. With the press already under siege, he is trying to intimidate all those who are making their voices heard in the media sphere by punishing them. But you will see that this does not pay off. Because we will continue to speak, continue to write. Perhaps while being prosecuted, perhaps while being subjected to threats, but without a doubt we will continue.’

PEN believes that the articles in question by Dündar constitute legitimate political criticism and that the public prosecutor’s office should drop the charges and investigation against him. Freedom of expression includes the right to offend, particularly within the context of thoughts and opinions relating to the politics of high-ranking government officials. The onus is on the Turkish courts to ensure that the prime minister’s personality rights are not unduly placed above those of others, nor above the general interest in a democratic society of promoting freedom of expression where issues of public interest and political criticism are concerned.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media have stated that that ‘criminal defamation is not a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression; all criminal defamation laws should be abolished and replaced, where necessary, with appropriate civil defamation laws’.

This approach was reinforced in a European Court of Human Rights case, Tuşalp v Turkey (2012), a defamation suit brought by Erdoğan against journalist Erbil Tuşalp. The European Court highlighted the relevance of the fact that Tuşalp’s scathing criticism of the prime minister involved ‘important matters in a democratic society of which the public had a legitimate interest in being informed and which fell within the scope of political debate.’ Regarding the ‘offensiveness’ of the words used by Tuşalp, the court held that ‘the protection of Article 10 [of the European Convention on Human Rights which relates to freedom of expression] was applicable not only to information or ideas that were favourably received but also to those which offended, shocked or disturbed.’ A crucial matter for consideration was the prime minister’s public position: ‘The limits of acceptable criticism were wider for a politician than a private individual. [The prime minister] would therefore have been obliged to display a greater degree of tolerance.’