The trouble began for Can Dündar, as it did for so many in Turkey, with the mid-2013 demonstrations that initially sought to halt the demolition of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, but bloomed into a movement against the country’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
“The Gezi Protests was I guess the turning point for Turkey, not only for me,” the former editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper, now living in exile in Germany, told Ahval in a podcast.
“From then on Erdoğan realised the threats against himself and tried to smash all the opposition, and I was one of them,” said the 58-year-old Dündar, who was working as a columnist for Milliyet newspaper at the time. “I was taking part in the Gezi Protests, I was there as a journalist, as a citizen, as a father. I reflected in my column what I witnessed, but they didn’t like it.”
Milliyet, which had been bought in 2011 by Demirören Holdings, a firm close to Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), let Dündar go. He moved on to Cumhuriyet, where he soon faced government charges for writing about a vast corruption scandal that involved Erdoğan’s family and forced out two government ministers.
Named editor-in-chief in early 2015, he stumbled on an even bigger story: trucks from Turkey’s national intelligence agency, MIT, were caught on video ferrying weapons over the border to Syria, possibly to the Islamic State (ISIS). Turkish officials say the trucks were delivering weapons to Turkmen fighters. Hoping to avoid government persecution, the Cumhuriyet editorial team decided to attach all of their names to the article.
“They said we should face the possible risks together,” said Dündar. “I couldn’t do it. I should take the risk, as the story’s mine, and I’m editor-in-chief.”
The story ran under Dündar’s name and the next day Erdoğan vowed that the person responsible for it would pay a heavy price. “Since then I’ve been paying it,” Dündar admits.
He and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül were arrested, charged with espionage and membership of a terrorist group and spent 92 days in prison. In May 2016, Dündar was sentenced to nearly six years in prison for revealing state secrets, and as he was leaving Istanbul’s Caglayan courthouse with his wife, Dilek, a man emerged from the crowd.
“I remember someone approaching,” he recalled. “I hadn’t seen the gun in the beginning. But I heard the voice of him, calling me a traitor. Then he shot twice. I remember the smell of it. Then a friend of mine, another journalist who was wounded, he said ‘Run! You are the target.’”
His wife started to fend off the gunman, then police and an opposition member of parliament, Muharrem Erkek, brought the attacker under control before he was able to inflict any serious injury.
Dündar appealed the court’s decision and retreated to Spain to write a book. While he was there, Erdoğan’s government fended off a coup attempt in which some 2500 were killed. Dündar wanted to return to Turkey right away, but he spoke to his lawyers who told him they would likely be unable to protect him legally or physically.
The government placed Turkey under a state of emergency and began a series of purges, dismissing tens of thousands of public servants and hunting down countless alleged followers of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Turkish preacher Ankara blames for the coup. At the same time, the authorities let certain criminals walk free.
“I could’ve gone back and went to prison, but at this time I was not sure the prisons would be safe for me after they released my attacker,” said Dündar. “Imagine, he tried to kill a journalist in public and he stayed something like a couple of weeks in jail.”
Dündar relocated to Berlin and soon learned the Turkish government had taken his wife’s passport. “We tried every way to get her passport back. Legal ways, political ways, diplomatic channels,” he said. “It didn’t work. Erdogan’s government decided to keep her just to punish me. She was a hostage.”
After three years, during which she missed her son’s college graduation in London, Dilek Turker Dündar followed the path of countless refugees and undertook an illegal journey from Turkey to Europe. The couple had an emotional reunion in Greece and returned to Germany together.
Dündar has received death threats and was put under protection by German authorities after they received information of a serious threat. He sees this as Erdoğan carrying out the threat he made after the publication of the story about MIT trucks going into Syria.
“He’s trying to punish his opponents wherever they are,” he said. “If you are in jail, you are in the country, outside the country, doesn’t matter. If you are challenging such a leader and such a regime, they want you to feel always at risk.”
That has not stopped Dündar from working. He is editor-in-chief of the web radio station Özgürüz and writes a weekly column for a German newspaper, while continuing to add to the more than 40 books he has written. He has won a series of major honours, including the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Prize for the Freedom and Future of the Media from the Leipzig Media Foundation, and Prix Europa’s European Journalist of the Year.
But back in Turkey, Dündar is treated as an enemy of the state and faces court cases linked to the Gezi protests, the corruption scandal and a shuttered media outlet.
“If you are branded an enemy of the state it’s easy for them to put every blame on you,” he said, adding that he has found a good way to deal with the near-daily attacks on him in Turkey’s pro-government media outlets. “At one stage I decided to ignore them. And that’s a punishment for them …They lost their power.”
This month a German theatre company produced a play based on Dündar’s book, Traitor, which details his exile and separation from his wife. This is the second of his works to be turned into a drama, after Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company created a play based on a book he wrote about his time in prison. He and his wife attended the play last week, even though their German is limited.
“We were crying, to ourselves on the stage, without understanding a word,” he said, adding that the play helped them better appreciate what they had gone through.
“In a war, if you are wounded you don’t feel the pain, but afterwards you start bleeding and you realise there are wounds. It’s like this, in the fight we didn’t realise how difficult all we’d been living through was. But on the stage for an hour-and-a-half watching all these troubled years, it was tough, and we realised that it was really a lot for a couple and for a family.”
In the last few years, thousands of other Turkish families have faced similar hurdles, and worse. Dündar said he and his wife felt blessed because they at least are able to face exile together. When they think of Turkey, it is not any restaurant, Istanbul view or particular dish that they miss, but a sense of what their country has lost.
“We are missing Turkey laughing,” he said. “It’s a sad country now, suffering a lot. Unfortunately, my country is not happy anymore. I miss its laughing most. I hate to see my country suffering.”