ISTANBUL - As he penned his column Thursday, editor in chief Can Dundar said he was all too aware that the piece for the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet could be one of the last he would write as a free man.
"I am prepared for a long imprisonment, maybe, but it's a political issue," he said on the eve of his next court hearing. "It's a political struggle, and you have to be ready for any kind of price to be paid, because this is the way democracy can overcome. Otherwise, if we stop talking, that means a kind of silent society, which [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan needs, and pushes for. So we have to stay and fight back.”
At issue is a video shot by Turkish paramilitary police during a raid on Syria-bound aid trucks that were being escorted by Turkish intelligence agents. Police discovered munitions on the trucks. Dundar and his colleague Erdem Gul reported that the arms were for Syrian jihadists.
Their story and decision to show the video on their newspaper’s webpage drew the ire of Erdogan, who pledged they would pay a heavy price. He said the trucks carried legitimate aid to ethnic Turkmen communities in Syria, and the newspaper engaged in espionage in publishing it. Shortly after that, prosecutors opened cases against them for espionage and membership in a terror organization. They face two consecutive life sentences plus 30 years behind bars if convicted.
WATCH: Full interview with Cumhuriyet's Can Dundar
Dundar rejected the charges. "It was an international crime for the Turkish government and president and Turkish intelligence services ... trafficking arms to a neighboring country and getting involved in the civil war there," he said. "That's why as a journalist it was my responsibility to publish it."
In March, one of Turkey’s best-selling newspapers, Zaman — a strong critic of Erdogan's government — was seized by the courts on allegations it was supporting terrorism. Concern is growing over the future of Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey’s last mainstream newspapers critical of the government. Dundar said he worried that Ankara is being given a free hand by its Western allies.
"Europe from the beginning was supporting Erdogan because of the flow of migrants, the crisis," he said. "That gives Erdogan a free hand to use over us and suppress us in Turkey. And it was a big disappointment for Turkish democrats and liberals."
Many European diplomats attended the last court hearing for the two journalists, a move strongly condemned by the president. How far Europe will go in risking its relationship with its key ally over press freedom remains unclear.