Illustration: Fountain pens on the ground dig graves.
Defending Freedom

Freedom of the press has to be defended every day. Even before arriving in exile in Berlin, Can Dündar knew that, in Germany, he would continue to practise the profession that had caused him so many problems in Turkey. He also knew that it was not only Turkey that was being led into chaos by the power of mediocracy. A sadomasochistic relationship between the people and their leaders can also be observed in the West, in places where populism is rampant.

Media outlets that were loyal to the government outdid each other with their speculations on whether I was an American or German spy, and I flew to New York to receive an award from the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ). Perhaps for the first time I felt truly unhappy. I was gripped by a deep sense of loneliness, something that I had not even felt in my cell or in solitary confinement. I had always bought souvenirs at the airport, but now I had no one to give them to. Loneliness was where I was flying to, and where I would return.

My country was far away, my voice could not reach that far, nor could I hear the voices that emanated from it. All the voices I heard were foreign. On the plane, I watched a film called Papa: Hemingway in Cuba. Ernest Hemingway told his young admirers: ‘The only value we have as humans are the risks we are willing to take.’

Going by this, I must have produced lots of value. I had already taught myself to ignore the hate campaigns of the regime’s loyal media and the staged shitstorms on social media. At first they had affected me for hours. Then for minutes. And eventually I just stopped reading them.


“Only Listen to People Whose Opinion You Value”

I had internalised a principle: ‘Only listen to people whose opinion you value. Ignore the rest.’ But now the branches that I valued had broken off. I had lost leaves. When the plane landed, I found my own storm was awaiting me.

Donald Trump had just been elected. Not only America, but the whole world, was stunned. The chaos that swept through London in June and Istanbul in July had now reached New York in November. I felt as if I had a black cloud hanging over me. It was the seismic event of the age and its tremors were felt in societies everywhere. An internal energy erupted and shook an unfortunate world.

The power of mediocracy. A sadomasochistic relationship between the people and their leaders.

An ostracising arrogance that turned its back on the values accumulated by humanity for centuries, a selfish audacity, a power-crazed loutishness, a shoulder-shrugging power that knew no god but money, a blind hatred took advantage of the panic of the unorganised masses faced with the loss of their jobs and lives and swept through the whole world. The power of mediocracy.

A sadomasochistic relationship between the people and their leaders. The sentiments that were imprisoning my country were also there in New York. They were laughing in my face. ‘The tumour that you are fleeing has spread in every direction.’ Driven by fear, humanity had fallen in love with its killers. Now it would try it out for a while, see itself being traded, would suffer, repent and turn back; but who knows how many years of our lives this pendulum will cost us before that happens. The United Nations, Columbia School of Journalism, the New York Times, CNN, Reuters – in every building, on the tongue of every American I spoke to, there were the same stunned questions that we have asked ourselves so often in Turkey over the last fifteen years: ‘How is it possible? Why has it happened? What will happen next?

On her show on CNN, I told Christiane Amanpour: ‘Welcome to the club!’ Now it was their turn to fight for the press freedom that they had taken for granted for so long. The best thing about New York was meeting Ege. I really wanted him to be at the award ceremony, and he came.

As the Turkish government was also targeting my family, he, like me, could not go home to his country, couldn’t see his mother. Not so much like father and son, but rather like two friends who share the same grief, we complained about our suffering in America. When I was in prison he wrote me a letter, saying: ‘When you get out we’ll eat Nutella from a spoon, watch football, pour our hearts out, grow together.

Maybe we’ll even race an old Cadillac through the dust of Highway 61.

We had often dreamt of putting BB King on the stereo and heading into the backcountry like two cowboys. Time to do it. I managed to carve out a free day in my packed programme, and we decided to rent a car. Then... we saw the prices. We told each other that it would be much better to visit the Metropolitan Museum; we never mentioned the fact that we couldn’t afford the trip. When we found we didn’t have enough money for smart shoes to wear with the rented tuxedos at the awards ceremony, we found an excuse: ‘Our shoes are much smarter!’

When the CPJ’s guests in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria gave standing ovations for the copy of Cumhuriyet that I held in my hand, bearing the headline ‘We won’t give up’, we both looked at our shoes and smiled at each other.

Back to Germany. The Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin is a temple of the arts, and it opened its arms to me from the moment I arrived in Germany.

The tumour that you are fleeing has spread in every direction.

In my first week I began attending its plays and writing a column on its website. This relationship opened the doors to a fertile arts scene in Berlin and to new friendships. When artistic director Shermin Langhof suggested organising a panel discussion in memory of our friend, journalist Hrant Dink, I replied that I didn’t think panel discussions achieved much but suggested ‘How about a play?’ ‘If you’ll write it, then yes!’ was the reply, and I agreed.

I ordered books from Turkey and read about Hrant's life. I had travelled with him, talked to him and always admired his courage. Many of his ancestors were killed in the Armenian Genocide of 1915. He grew up in an orphanage in Istanbul. That’s where he met Rakel, whom he later married.

He was arrested and tortured during the military coup in 1980. But he didn’t give up. Instead he set up the bilingual Turkish/Armenian newspaper Agos. In 2004, when he wrote in a report that Atatürk's adopted daughter was an Armenian girl from an orphanage, he became the target of nationalists.


“Denigrating Turkishness”

He was brought to trial and charged with ‘denigrating Turkishness’. Turkish nationalists protested outside his office, chanting: ‘Love the country or get out!’ and showered him with threats. When I read his old articles, I felt as if I had found an old acquaintance in the vortex that was dragging me down. Hrant wrote: “These are tactics to isolate Agos and plunge us into despair and hopelessness. But they don’t know that people like us grow stronger the more they isolate us.

Those who call me an ‘enemy of the Turks' literally torture me, and people around me are of course horrified. {...} They clearly care about me. And me? I couldn’t say I wasn’t afraid. But don’t worry, I’m not planning to leave my country and run away. I’m used to living like this. From now on I will just be a little more afraid. That’s all.’


In Turkey, writers all dig their own graves with their pens. The life of a writer in Turkey is inextricably linked to the fact that fear, threats and death haunt them like shadows that have to be consciously confronted.

When writing, it's as if we were trying desperately to change the outcome of a film whose end we already know. In the credits, our names are accompanied by the words ‘His memory lives on’... Hrant stubbornly ignored the pleas of his nearest and dearest: ‘Go abroad for a while!’ He continued to live and write according to his beliefs and conscience, in order to ‘create a kingdom of heaven out of the hell in which we live.’ But he was worried.

Photo of an open book with a pen nearby.
In Turkey, writers all dig their own graves with their pens, photo: Yannick Pulver, unsplash

In his last article, which appeared on 19 January 2007, he wrote: ‘This much is clear: those who have tried to isolate me, to make me weak and defenceless, have, in their own fashion, achieved what they wanted. (....) The message log and memory of my computer is filled with lines full of rage and threats. (...) For me the real threat, and the one that is really unbearable, is the psychological torture I have to live through by myself. (...) It's unfortunate that I am more readily recognised nowadays than I used to be, and that I sense more often people casting glances in my direction, saying: Oh look, isn’t he that Armenian?

And as a reflex, I wind up tormenting myself. This torture is in part sorrow, in part worry. One part is alertness, one part is being frightened. I’m just like a pigeon. Just like it, I am in a constant state of keeping my eyes out, looking left and right, in front of me and behind me. My head is just as mobile... and just as ready to swiftly turn at a moment's notice. (...) Do you know what it means to imprison a human being in the fear of a pigeon?’ I knew it. Because I felt the same in Berlin: my computer was also overflowing with threatening letters. The same psychological torture. The same sense of being a pigeon. Hrant finished his article with an optimistic note: ‘Probably 2007 will be an even more difficult year for me.

In Turkey, writers all dig their own graves with their pens. 

The court proceedings will go on, new ones will begin. Who knows what sort of additional injustices I will have to confront? Pigeons continue to live their lives, even in the midst of cities, amidst crowds of people. A little frightened, it’s true, but also free.’

On the day this article was published he probably woke up once again with the pigeon’s sense of unrest. He tried to conceal from his wife the black cloud of worry that hung over him. While his murderer was waiting for him on the corner, he read the paper, drank tea, kissed his wife as he left the house, not knowing that all this was happening for the last time.

In a hurry, he probably paid little attention to what he wore, because he never dreamt that the shoe he was slipping on would appear on the front pages of the newspapers the next morning. He left the house at ten thirty. As usual, he probably looked around to see if anyone was following him. First he went to the editorial office, then to the bank to withdraw money; when he came out at three o’clock, two shots were fired into the back of his head. Police officers covered his blood-drenched body with newspapers as it lay in the street, but his shoe with a hole in the sole poked out.

But in places where truth is imprisoned, where people die for its sake, journalism is [...] [a] bastion that has to be defended for the sake of democracy.

His article, published the same day, was a kind of premonition of his murder. He was only wrong on one count: in his country there were a great many people who were in a position to hurt a pigeon. When I read out Hrant's last lines on the stage on 19 January 2017, I said that they seemed very familiar to me today. Restless pigeons were fluttering in my heart. In other parts of the world, journalism is simply the name of a profession. But in places where truth is imprisoned, where people die for its sake, journalism is a priceless platform. A bastion that has to be defended for the sake of democracy.

In Turkey, from your very first day as a journalist you are negotiating a minefield. The traces left by those who have gone before are like memorials before your eyes. Some of them are wounded behind bars, others lie in pieces in the cemetery. Writers dig their own graves with their pens. ‘If you write this report, you’ll annoy the government.’ ‘If you attack that man, you’ll be next.’ ‘If you draw that cartoon, they'll shoot you.’ Your head is swimming with such phrases.

But journalism means writing the report anyway, attacking that man, drawing that cartoon. It’s a test of bravery. It is a fight against fear even before it is a fight against the powerful. Even before I arrived in Berlin, it was clear to me that in Germany I would continue to practise my profession, which was so persecuted in Turkey.


Commitment to Opposition

Some of the young Turks who fought against the absolutism of the Sultan at the beginning of the 20th century in the final phase of the Ottoman Empire had to go to Europe, where they published newspapers and magazines in Europe’s capital cities and organised themselves to continue their commitment to opposition. One hundred years later, at the beginning of the 21st century, isn’t it possible to do the same?

Communication technologies are now more advanced, it has become much easier to get and distribute the news. And there was already a team at the ready: in Turkey, outstanding journalists had lost their jobs because their newspapers and television stations had been banned or pressurised, and now they were sitting at home.

Could we not come together with them and set up an internet platform as a free media channel without censorship and without bosses, in order to spread the truth that was being kept under lock and key verbally and in writing? Could we not pass on to our readers and viewers the reports and comments that no longer had a place in the mainstream media and prepare Turkey for the future?

‘Of course we can’, I said at first. I’m still very optimistic. As I drove along the information highway, which was standing by for the information age, a mighty boulder stood in my way: fear. The first thing I did was to call a journalist who was renowned for her courage. I had barely voiced my question ‘Will you write for us?’ before she cut me off: ‘Impossible. No-one can do that.

Just this phone call is enough for me to be arrested. You shouldn’t have called me.’ She hung up. That was the first shock. She was right to be afraid of putting herself in the firing line. Should I ask her to write for us under a pseudonym? The police also read online correspondence. And reporters?

For reporters in Turkey, it was dangerous to work as a dissident. On the spot, in the middle of what was happening, they had to report directly to the police and gendarmes and were put under huge pressure. Anyone who worked for us in Berlin would also be threatened. The first one I called preferred to remain unemployed rather than place herself in such danger.

She said it would also be difficult to get access to news sources. Many people were afraid to talk to a media channel abroad that was critical of the government. Even politicians who visited our office preferred not to be photographed: ‘Don’t let anyone see me here!’ Even if we dealt with these hurdles, what should we do about the government’s censorship of the internet?

For reporters in Turkey, it was dangerous to work as a dissident.

And if we managed that, how should we launch this kind of initiative? With foreign funding? That would be a major handicap for a journalist accused of espionage. With contributions from readers? Even if readers wanted to support us, how would they make their donations? Always with the risk of being registered? Days and weeks went by as we sought solutions to these problems. In the end we got together with a few young people who lived in Germany but who were not journalists, rolled up our sleeves and set to work.

Before long, the climate of repression in Turkey provided us with a fresh opportunity: more and more journalists who felt they had no way of continuing to work in Turkey, were coming to Berlin. They included very capable friends and colleagues. They were joined by dozens of academics who had been fired by their universities. The central role that Paris played one hundred years ago in the fight for freedom of the young Turks has now been taken over by Berlin and, until further notice, has become a hub for political refugees in the fight for democracy.

Semra Uzun-Onder came up with the name for our platform: Özgürüz – We are free.


We are Arrested

The book that I wrote in prison gained its original title from a tweet that I posted when the arrest warrant was issued: Tutuklandık – We are arrested. So with our platform we also gave it a name that described our new situation. A gifted friend made a hash tag out of interwoven arms and created our logo with it. Another filmed a promotional video for us. Özgürüz was to be launched on 24 January. This was the anniversary of the car bomb attack on Uğur Mumcu, one of Turkey’s most courageous investigative journalists.

Our launch was possible thanks to donations from a few key supporters in Germany, both individuals and institutions. We asked our readers to support us. The first donation of ten euros arrived from a Turk who lived in Germany. He promised to make this donation every month. We called to thank him. Others soon followed.

Now our gaze turned constantly to the counter at the entrance, which showed how our circle of supporters was growing day by day thanks to the crowdfunding principle. Our piggy bank was filling up. Soon we had so much money that we were able to pay the salaries of a handful of editorial staff, along with the fees of journalists who were willing to write for us. The adventure of being a media channel in exile could now begin, with all its ups and downs. For a while the editorial team worked day and night and set up a website. We wanted to publish news and analyses in German and Turkish. We did not want to limit ourselves to reporting for Turkey but were keen to generate greater understanding of Turkey in Germany and help the two societies to get to know each other better.

We were completing our last preparations on 23 January when the news came: the government had blocked our site ‘as the result of a technical investigation and legal decision’. We hadn’t even started! What had they seen that allowed them to give a legal verdict? The government had already confiscated an unprinted book from the printers, and now it was blocking a website before it even went online.

We ourselves could not have found a better way of describing the huge extent to which the media in Turkey was being restricted. So we came up with the title: ‘The first website to be banned before it was launched’. So fear was not only widespread among the journalists and reporters I had asked to write for us.


We Did Not Care About the Ban

Even those who were used to being obeyed were afraid of being contradicted. We no longer cared about the ban, we would find other ways to reach our audience. People in Turkey were used to getting around internet censorship. The ban just attracted more attention to us: in the first ten hours we attracted 20,000 followers on Twitter, and our supporters quickly grew to 200. We felt a huge surge of hope.


Photo of hands typing on a laptop.
People in Turkey were used to getting around internet censorship, photo: John Schnobrich, unsplash

When we went online, we published a few articles by writers from Turkey who had dared to write for us, and a study of the arms trade between Germany and Turkey. In the founding manifesto I wrote: ‘In a freer environment, learning from past mistakes, we will return objectively and courageously to investigative journalism. We will do all we can to give the people, who are on the verge of making vital choices, all the news they need. (...) It is an initiative that will prove that free thinking can never be silenced.’

Along with Hayko Bağdat, who had come to Germany and joined the editorial team when the pressure in Turkey became too great for him, I stepped in front of the camera and said: ‘You cannot stop us.’ The camera was on Hayko’s son’s phone.

We borrowed it from him when he was taking a break from playing games. And as for broadcasting it, we weren’t exactly a TV station. We called on a few technically minded friends to help us produce a programme for Periscope in the corner of our editorial office. We then posted it on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. When one channel was blocked, we posted on all the others. Ten thousand people watched our programme. While we were online on Periscope, the comments were equally divided between good wishes and insults.

When high-ranking German politicians and, soon afterwards, politicians from Turkey spoke exclusively to us, doors opened for Özgürüz. Politically, we were stronger, but our lack of infrastructure was glaring. Every time there was a different problem, either the lighting let us down, or the sound, or the transmission. I’ll never forget the shock when our director told me after an interview I had conducted with Norbert Lammert, President of the Bundestag, which was packed with phrases that were each deserving of a headline in their own right: ‘Unfortunately there was no sound.’

We all did our best, but we had to battle with all kinds of technical difficulties.

And soon we also had a security problem. It didn't take long for the Turkish secret service to find out our address, and a television team from a government-supporting channel in Istanbul was quickly sent to Berlin to attack us.

One day a presenter was on our doorstep with his microphone, telling the viewers: ‘Here is the nest of traitors!’ During our transmission the following evening, he named the part of town where our editorial office is located, described the building, pointed to the windows behind which we worked, and announced when we went in and out. We had been put in the pillory. My secretary quit, afraid that we could suffer a Charlie Hebdo-style attack. Another co-worker bowed to the pressure of her family, who begged her to quit. But we carried on with the staff who remained.

It didn't take long for the Turkish secret service to find out our address, and a television team from a government-supporting channel in Istanbul was quickly sent to Berlin to attack us.

And other brave people joined us. Soon reporters and camera operators were working for us in Istanbul, Ankara and Diyarbakir. Our disadvantage was beginning to be an advantage: people who were unable to make themselves heard in the mainstream media, who were silenced or censored, contacted us and continued to have a voice. Informants brought us reports that nobody dared to publish. It was hard to get established authors to write for us, but it was also a chance to find new comrades-in-arms.

Our brave local reporters were soon joined by civilian reporters. We tried to give people with something to say a platform on Özgürüz, we gave them our Periscope password. This led to some incredible scenes, such as when a woman who was arrested during a protest action sent a live stream from the police vehicle, reporting on what had happened via the Özgürüz account.

Together we experienced how an alternative medium set up in exile in a sea of impossibilities and inadequacies used technology to break down walls that were considered insurmountable and reached those who were thought to be unreachable. As excited as school students making their own TV programme, we repeated in the face of all the difficulties: ‘Isn’t it great that we’re journalists?’

In my office there was a TV where I could watch Turkish channels. Right next door was the studio where we broadcast our programmes. The country we were talking about was so different from the one I saw on the screen. Every time I walked the five or six steps from the studio back into my office it felt like I was crossing a huge gulf. Fear of Erdoğan had blindfolded the Turkish media. On top of all this, we were all beset by thousands of problems – passports, visas, residency permits, insurance, work permits, looking for apartments, opening bank accounts, catching up with our families.

The difficulties piled up and soon led to problems and cracks in our team. We then shifted the axis, turned our focus to Turkey and allowed the reporters to take the initiative. Now we tried out a local, free, non-hierarchical publication with ten people in four cities, who did not know each other but shared the same ideal and communicated via a WhatsApp group. They travelled with a small phone that served as a camera, microphone, recording device, intercom, computer, spotlight and loudspeaker.

Fear of Erdoğan had blindfolded the Turkish media. 

This is how we maintained our right to information and reporting. The internet portal was followed by the Periscope account and then the monthly bilingual Turkish-German Özgürüz magazine. Then we set up the Özgürüz publishing house for books that could not be printed because they were considered questionable.

We also applied to set up a German/Turkish radio show. In this way, we gradually turned ourselves into a free media group that is exclusively run and managed by journalists. It is possible that the democratic media of the future will emerge from this original initiative, which grew out of the experience of repression.


“This is the Royal Shakespeare Company”  

‘This is the Royal Shakespeare Company. We’d like to adapt your book We are Arrested for the stage. What do you think? I couldn’t believe it. The book I wrote in my prison cell in Istanbul was to be adapted for the English stage! Less than a year after I wrote it. ‘When?’ I asked. ‘We’re thinking the 16th of June’, said the voice at the other end. ‘Did you deliberately choose this date?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘It’s my birthday!’ ‘No. We didn’t know that.’ The voice laughed.


I flew to Stratford-upon-Avon. I met Ege there. On 16 June 2017 I went into the theatre. A man stood on the stage before an audience in the round. He began to tell his emotional tale, but was soon overpowered by his feelings and sank into himself. He wrote, was charged, arrested, treated unfairly, was shot at, danced, laughed, cried. That was me. As if nailed to my seat, I watched myself, a little stunned and very melancholy, but it was hard for me to recognise ‘myself’ on stage.

Had I really lived through all this? Had this all really happened in just 18 months? Was I watching a play, or was it my own life? I had a different face, was dressed in different clothes, was speaking a different language. The audience watched the play with sad expressions, shooting me glances and dabbing at their tearful eyes with handkerchiefs. I avoided looking at my son, who was sitting in the audience.

Photo of Can Dündar
Can Dundar, stands on the stage during a commemorative evening on the 10th death anniversary of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink at Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin, Germany, 19 January 2017, photo: picture alliance/EPA | Clemens Bilan

The man on the stage was not the man I saw in the mirror, he acted and spoke independently of me, but he was telling my story. Watching the play, I didn’t know whether to be proud or pity the man. The man on the stage was accompanied by another figure, who transformed into different characters – charging me as public prosecutor, as a judge, turning into a policeman, then a guard who locked me in my cell, then my wife, then my son who took my arm. Had I given those who linked arms with me grounds for pride or simply hurt them? I was unable to judge.


About the Author
Photo of Can Dündar
Can Dündar
Journalist and author

Can Dündar is the former editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet. He was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for his reporting on the Turkish secret service and narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. Dündar continued his fight for press freedom in exile. He received, among others, the Reporters Without Borders Human Rights Award, the Hermann Kesten Award, the Golden Victoria for Press Freedom, the Lev Kopelev Award and the International Whistleblower Award. In 2017, he was awarded the European Journalist of the Year.

A selection of books:

  • We Are Arrested: A Journalist's Notes from a Turkish Prison. Biteback Publishing, London, 2016