The Sunday Magazine

Turkey must choose democracy not just stability, says exiled journalist

A conversation with Turkish journalist Can Dündar, former editor-in-chief of one of Turkey's largest opposition dailies. Dündar was imprisoned by the government and charged with leaking state secrets, espionage, and aiding a terrorist group. He now lives in Berlin.
Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief Can Dündar arrives at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite the growing chaos of its internal politics, Turkey is critically important to the rest of the world. 

Once celebrated as one of the only secular democracies in a Muslim-majority country, it's a member of NATO and it plays a key role in Europe's refugee crisis.

Now, the fate of Turkey's democracy hangs in the balance. 

Last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, strongman for the past 14 years, got what he wanted: the chance to create a new constitution.

He won a referendum that will replace the country's parliamentary system with an executive presidency — though the margins of victory were quite narrow.

Election monitors have questioned the legitimacy of the referendum results. And prominent journalists charge that public debate in the run-up to the vote was suppressed.

This reality is one that Turkish journalist Can Dündar knows all too well. He is the former editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey's largest opposition daily newspapers.

Can Dündar, former editor-in-chief at Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, now living in exile in Berlin where he is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the German-Turkish online news service, "Özgürüz" (which translates as "we are free"). (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
In November 2015, he was arrested and thrown into a jail. He was charged with disclosing state secrets, espionage, and aiding a terrorist group. 

After three months in prison, the courts handed Dündar a six-year jail sentence. He left Turkey while awaiting the result of his appeal.

We will carry on this fight until we have democracy in our country.- Can Dündar

Can Dündar is now a Writers-at-Risk Fellow at the German centre of PEN International. He won the 2016 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. 

According to that group, the government of Turkey jailed more journalists last year than any other country in the world. It also shut down more than 150 media outlets. Hundreds more journalists have faced threats, censorship or exile.

Can Dündar talked to Michael Enright from Berlin, from the offices of a new on-line magazine which he has just co-founded. It's called Özgürüz, which means "we are free."

Taking courage from the referendum results

Dündar says the opposition should see the outcome of the referendum as a success—particularly in the context of a campaign of intimidation against the 'no' side in the lead-up to the vote. 

"The government has been controlling the media and the third biggest party's leaders are in jail. Saying no is like a dangerous thing in Turkey. They were arrested, they were jailed, and they were threatened by the president," he says. 

Supporters of the 'no' vote, (Hayir in Turkish) chant slogans during a protest against the referendum outcome, in Istanbul, Tuesday, April 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
"But we're still standing and fighting back," Dündar says. "Now a legal battle has started in Turkey and people at the moment are protesting on the streets—protesting the result, and manipulation or fabrication by the government. This protest will go on for a while."

"We will carry on this fight until we have democracy in our country."

No stability without democracy

Erdoğan had posed the referendum as a choice between democracy and stability. But Dündar says it was really about choosing between democracy or dictatorship.

"Of course we would have a stable country under a dictatorship. There are many examples of it in the region…Our aim should be democracy, not stability…Choosing stability [at] the price of democracy is not a good idea."

The country is like a jail for journalists nowadays… Giving the truth to the people is really dangerous business.- Can Dündar

Dündar says Erdoğan has never truly been a democrat over the past 14 years—even if the Western world has always wanted to see him as one. 

"Democracy is a train to get him to the last station, and the last station is, in fact, Islam for him…Democracy was just a means."

"But the Western world needed him and presented him as a liberal," Dündar says. "[They] tried to make a liberal out of an Islamist."

Supporters of the "No" march on April 18, 2017 in Istanbul. (YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
Journalists as enemies of the state

Like all dictators, Erdoğan needs enemies to govern, Dündar says.

"Every critic is regarded as an enemy of the state." 

"My guilt," says Dündar, "was publishing a story which was denied by the government. For a true story, they asked for two life sentences for me."

"The country is like a jail for journalists nowadays…Giving the truth to the people is really dangerous business."

But Dündar says the world must continue to pay attention to these journalists' plight. 

"Since there's no rule of law in this country, the only thing that can get them out is our solidarity and support."

Our aim should be democracy, not stability.- Can Dündar

On imprisonment and exile

Dündar spent three months in solitary confinement before being released for trial. But he refuses to remember the experience as one of only torment. 

"If you're not happy with loneliness, it can be tough. But for me, it was not bad. I was reading and writing…Being a journalist, just a paper and pen can be your friends."

During his court trial, Dündar survived an assassination attempt, when a man attempted to shoot at him twice and yelled out that he was a traitor. 

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - MAY 6: Assailant, 40-year-old Murat Sahin who attempted to shoot prominent Turkish journalist Can Dundar is held by Dilek Dundar, wife of Can Dundar, and an unidentified man. (Can Erok/Cumhuriyet Newspaper via Getty Images)
For Dündar, these experiences are just "part of the business."

"If you're a journalist in Turkey, you must be ready for that kind of stuff…I'm lucky that I'm alive, thanks to my wife. She was brave enough to jump over the attacker and [take] his gun. My wife saved my life."

Dündar's wife remains in Turkey, where the government has confiscated her passport. 

"She's been taken hostage by the government. It's a kind of punishment. It's unlawful… We haven't seen each other for the last nine months now. We're suffering and waiting for justice or any court decision that [would] allow her to leave the country," he says. 

Now in exile, Dündar says his new reality is hardly different from being in jail. 

"My room not bigger than my cell. I was writing there—books, news, articles—and I'm doing the same here. Not a big difference really. Now I have a phone and laptop, but apart from this, I was struggling in my cell and I'm doing the same in my office," he says. 

I'm always hopeful about this country, even if we're in a very difficult situation now. Turkey is a surprise chocolate: you never know what's in it.- ​Can Dündar

​Dündar is now running the publication Özgürüz, which he co-founded earlier this year in Berlin. The website was blocked by the government of Turkey before it was even launched.

"It was the fastest ban in our history. They didn't even know what we would publish."

Özgürüz is a bilingual news platform co-founded in Berlin by Can Dündar's in January 2017. The website is blocked in Turkey. (
The beginning of the end for Erdoğan

Despite this climate of fear and repression, Dündar remains optimistic.

"I'm always hopeful about this country, even if we're in a very difficult situation now," says Dündar. "Turkey is a surprise chocolate: you never know what's in it."

Dündar says that Erdoğan has been "poisoned by his power." 

"This last referendum result shows us that his power is declining. We saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Half of the country is now against him. It won't be so easy for him to run the country from now on," he adds.

"It will be the beginning of the end of the Erdoğan era."

Click 'listen' above to hear Michael's full interview with Can Dündar.