Turkey: Journalist Can Dundar’s next trial hearing scheduled for September

RAN 04/15 Update #2 – 22 May 2015

PEN International is concerned by the ongoing trial for alleged defamation of writer, journalist and documentary filmmaker Can Dündar, who is also the editor-in-chief of the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet. Dündar could face up to four and a half years in prison if convicted. At his most recent hearing on 28 April 2015, Dündar’s lawyers made arguments about the journalistic relevance of the December 2013 corruption investigation and court documents from that investigation were admitted by the presiding judges as evidence in Dündar’s trial. The next hearing of Dündar’s case has been scheduled for 17 September 2015. PEN International opposes the criminalisation of defamation in all cases and once again calls on the Turkish authorities to drop these and any other charges brought 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 ann.harrison [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;
  • Urging them to ensure that judges and prosecutors approach defamation cases involving politicians and senior public officials in accordance with the principles set out by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Tuşalp v Turkey;
  • 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

***Please send appeals immediately. Check with PEN International if sending appeals after 16 September 2015. Please copy your appeals to the Embassy of Turkey in your country, asking for their comments. A list of diplomatic missions can be found here.***

** Please send us copies of your letters or information about other activities and of any responses received.**


Writer, journalist and documentary filmmaker Can Dündar is on trial for criminal defamation in a case brought by the President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his son Bilal Erdoğan. The case relates to a series of articles that Dündar wrote in July 2014, in which he questioned the handling of a dropped corruption investigation, initiated in December 2013, which implicated a number of high-ranking government officials and their families in alleged acts of bribery, bid-rigging for government contracts, money-laundering and gold smuggling.

Can Dündar 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 novel depiction of Turkey’s first president. 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 appointed as Cumhuriyet’s editor-in-chief in February 2015. 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 was also questioned on suspicion of presidential defamation on 26 February 2015 but no charges have yet been brought against him.

Dündar made the following comments to the press at the Çağlayan Courts of Justice on 26 February 2015 about the cases that President Erdoğan has brought against him:

‘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 calls on the public prosecutor’s office to drop the charges and end the 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 personal rights are not unduly placed above those of others. Protecting the right to freedom of expression is all the more important when issues of public interest and political criticism are concerned and international freedom of expression mechanisms have recommended that defamation laws should reflect the importance of open debate about matters of public concern.  They have urged states to ‘accept the principle that public figures are required to accept a greater degree of criticism than private citizens’ and to repeal, ‘in particular, laws which provide special protection for public figures’.

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.’