Illustration: An island is floating in the sea and is labelled as exile. In front of the island is a water bottle floating saying: It was our fault to be jouranlists.
We Have Swallowed a Lot of Water

Many critical journalists are sitting in Turkish prisons. Europe has limited options for influencing its NATO partner because of the fragile refugee agreement with Ankara. In exile, Can Dündar is hoping for a “boost from the bottom up”, for the solidarity of partner cities, trade unions and journalists.

The arrest of journalists as happened in Turkey is something that also has a precedent in Germany’s past: on the evening of 26 October 1962, police officers searched the premises of Spiegel. Subsequently, publisher Rudolf Augstein and the authors of the article that had triggered the police operation were remanded in custody, just as we were being accused of betraying state secrets. Just like Erdoğan, Chancellor Adenauer accused Augstein of treason.

In Germany, the investigations against Spiegel were seen as an attack on press freedom, and the public supported the editors who had been detained, just as our readers and professional associations stood by our side. But that’s where the similarities ended. The Spiegel affair became a turning point in the fight for press freedom in Germany. The Minister of Defence paid the price for exceeding his powers and was forced to resign, and soon afterwards the whole cabinet collapsed.

Just like Erdoğan, Chancellor Adenauer accused Augstein of treason.

In Turkey, on the other hand, after the publication of the video footage in Cumhuriyet, the people who were responsible for the scandal were promoted and Prime Minister Erdoğan became President of the Republic. The Turkish court sentenced the journalists for ‘disclosing secret documents’; whereas Germany’s Supreme Court dropped the lawsuit against Augstein, saying that the journalists had fulfilled their professional duty and blaming the politicians for abuse of office.

Der Spiegel came out on top in this affair, whereas 55 years later, a large-scale operation put the screws on Cumhuriyet. The difference between the two cases lies in the fact that Germany has historical experience of the appalling consequences of an uncontrolled, authoritarian power that disregards the separation of powers.


Their Lies Knew No Bounds

And, of course, it attaches importance to an independent judiciary, the rule of law, parliamentary control and a structured civil society. We expected these same sensibilities to come to the surface. In Turkey, media loyal to the regime took my statements condemning the silence of the German government and published them under the headline ‘Can becomes Hans’. Their lies knew no bounds. An incredible, negative propaganda campaign was under way, and we lacked the strength, patience and time to respond to it in detail.

Day in, day out, the front pages attacked us with insults, distortions and fake news. All the ‘material’ that was later to find its way into the indictment had already appeared in the newspapers: our reports, our comments, our headlines. It was our fault that we were journalists. Politically engaged journalists who uncovered all the government’s misdeeds.

It was a bitter blow when a few of our former colleagues at Cumhuriyet also joined in the chorus, criticising us and hoping to take over our jobs at the paper under new management. I discussed the situation with some of my Cumhuriyet colleagues who had come to Cologne for the event. I thought we should not go back. I knew what it was like in prison, and I saw the problem lay not so much in being arrested again as in the fact that the judiciary had now been completely suspended.

It was our fault that we were journalists. Politically engaged journalists who uncovered all the government’s misdeeds.

Once we were behind bars, we would have little chance of getting out again. The journalist Cem Kucuk, who acted as the government’s mouthpiece, began threatening us on television: ‘You will perish, by legal or other means!’


Between Prison and Exile


If we were arrested, no-one would be left to run the newspaper. The official receivers could be brought in. I tried to persuade my colleagues: ‘We can do much more from here.’

On the day of the fire, we hadn’t been in the house, and now we debated whether we should rush in and save our friends and colleagues or fetch water from outside. We tried to decide between prison and exile. Being outside while the others were inside was a heavy moral weight. Added to that was the burden of people saying: ‘He’s run away.’

Three days after the attack on Cumhuriyet, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yuksekdağ, the two co-chairs of the HDP, Turkey’s second-largest opposition party, were arrested. Now Erdoğan was heading for the rocks. Turkey was escaping us and racing towards dictatorship.

Photo of a pile of newspapers on a table.
"If we were arrested, no-one would be left to run the newspaper.", photo: Congerdesign, pixabay

In this climate, the newspaper’s publisher, Akin Atalay, announced his decision: ‘Yes, they will take me straight to prison from the airport. But as chairman of the Cumhuriyet Foundation, I can’t stay away at this time. It has more impact if I’m in prison. If I stay abroad, it looks as if I’m guilty of something. And my return will give my colleagues moral support.’

‘Then we’ll go back together’, I said. ‘You have to stay here’, he replied. ‘It’s not only your freedom that is in danger, but also your life. Even when you are in prison, there’s a chance they will kill you. And from here you can still do your job, from here you can make your voice heard all over the world. That would be difficult for me.’

He had made his decision. Nothing I could say would change his mind. Should I go back too? Should I choose prison over exile? Should I accept being imprisoned for who knows how long? I would not be returning to my country, but to prison, to a concrete cell. And it would not be the same cell as the one I occupied the year before.


Climate of Repression

The climate of repression that had gripped the whole country was also evident in prison. We no longer had the right to see our lawyers whenever we wanted or talk to them as long as we wanted. Our colleagues who were now imprisoned were only allowed to see their lawyers for one hour once a week. Family visits had been cut from one hour a week to every two weeks, as was the right to make phone calls. They were no longer allowed to receive or write letters.

When I was in prison, I could write articles and speak to the world, but that was no longer possible. Via his daughter, I asked Ahmet Altan, the well-known writer, journalist and publisher of the Taraf newspaper, to write something for the Turkish broadcast of Aspekte (a cultural programme on German television), but he told her to tell me: ‘I will be silent. That is my message.’

It was a writer’s silent scream. We had come to this. In the studio I ‘read out’ Ahmet's message in the form of a minute's silence, and then asked the audience to think about the writers and journalists who had been silenced in prison.

Silivri, the location of the prison where political prisoners are incarcerated, had become the district with the highest literacy rate in Turkey. The books written by inmates were now kept in the prison library but they were not allowed to read them. Another bitter blow was the fact that the yard behind the cells, the only place where the prisoners could see the sky, had now been fitted with an overhead grille so that communication was impossible.


“The Sky is like the Sea”

In his famous poem, Sabahattin Ali wrote: ‘Hold your face up / Even though you can’t see the sea / The sky is like the sea / Never mind, heart, never mind.’ Now when you hold up your face all you see is the sky behind bars. In a deaf concrete cell, the political prisoners have been silenced.

Going back not only meant being imprisoned but being silenced. I made up my mind: I would stay and speak. I would be the voice of those who cannot speak. The next day I saw on the news how Akin was led away as soon as he got off the plane.

He was arrested for being a ‘flight risk’. After the attack on Cumhuriyet, Christian Mihr, the German representative of Reporters without Borders, passed on my request for a meeting. The German President immediately agreed to it, and one week later I was at his official residence, Schloss Bellevue. We were joined by five of his advisors and his partner.

This high-level meeting sent out an important signal in itself. First of all it sent a message to us, to the journalists who were fighting for press freedom, saying: ‘You are not alone.’ Then it sent a message to the Turkish government: ‘We know that the people you call terrorists are standing up for truth and freedom.’ And perhaps it also sent a message to the German government: ‘Do not look away when universal rights are being trampled underfoot!’

I studied Gauck’s biography before the meeting. I suspected that his interest was not solely politically motivated, but also had a personal component. His background and family history meant that he understood the meaning of a repressive regime. He himself had lived under such a regime. His father was convicted of espionage, mistreated and exiled.


Tracked by the Stasi

For a long time, Gauck himself was tracked by the Stasi in East Germany. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he saw how this regime of oppression was toppled in a single day. Later on, he opened up the Stasi’s archives to the public and revealed crimes committed by the police. Now he was in his palatial residence welcoming a journalist from another country who had been charged with espionage and imprisoned because he had uncovered criminal government activity. In this way, he was sending out a strong signal of solidarity.

I went to the meeting alone but felt as if all the 150 journalists who were behind bars in Turkey were with me. My colleagues at the newspaper who had been dragged from their beds at dawn were by my side. And all my colleagues who had been dismissed from banned television stations or dragged out of the offices of radio stations, some of them by the hair.

And all the officials and staff of the banned newspapers, magazines and publishing houses. And all the academics and scientists who had been expelled from their universities, arrested and imprisoned, or exiled because they had signed an appeal for peace. I spoke on behalf of them all.

Now he was in his palatial residence welcoming a journalist from another country who had been charged with espionage and imprisoned because he had uncovered criminal government activity. In this way, he was sending out a strong signal of solidarity.

Less as a politician but more like a philosopher, the German President was interested in how an anti-democratic attitude can take root in a democracy; how this ‘structural contradiction’, this ‘alienation’ can flourish to such an extent that it jeopardises democracy.

He gave me the floor, saying: ‘We would like to hear what is going on in Turkey’. I told them how the stepchild in the furthest corner of Europe was fighting hard for democracy, secularism, freedom and human rights in the face of massive repression. And how European governments were taking the wrong side in this battle. How the ongoing repression and polarisation, and the escalating conflict in Turkey had an impact on Europe. That it would not only be a loss for Turkey if the only example of a secular democracy in the Islamic world were to be destroyed.


Back to His East German Past

My report presumably took the President back to his East German past and reminded him of the harsh oppression he had experienced in his own country, the struggles of its citizens, and probably his family. Perhaps that is why he continued the meeting, despite the fact that his assistants politely but regularly reminded him of the time. After an hour and a half, he said: ‘I would have liked to have heard more.’

When I left Schloss Bellevue, I felt as if I had not just spoken to a country’s president, but to a fellow sufferer who knew exactly what it was like to be harassed and face reprisals and censorship. He had fought against this, and respected anyone who was also engaged in this struggle. Once again, I was convinced that Turkey would emerge from this dark period. A wall that represented sorrow and suffering, that was considered to be permanent, could one day fall; ‘traitors’ could suddenly be transformed into ‘heroes’ and people who lived behind bars could take the place of people who lived in palaces. We too will see our wall fall, the archives of the secret police who persecute us will be opened up to the public; we must give hope to those who suffer and hold up examples from history.


Can Dündar and Joachim Gauck at the award ceremony of the Lew Kopelew Prize for Peace and Human Rights 2017
An important message: The then Federal President Joachim Gauck receives Turkish journalists at Bellevue Palace, Photo: Can Dündar and Joachim Gauck at the award ceremony of the Lew Kopelew Prize for Peace and Human Rights 2017 ©Horst Galuschka, dpa, picture alliance

In the evening after the meeting at Schloss Bellevue, I was awarded the Golden Victoria by the VDZ (Association of German Magazine Publishers), alongside Martin Schulz, who praised us in his acceptance speech. At the ceremony, I exchanged a few words with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s Foreign Minister at the time, about Turkey and Erdoğan.

Without knowing it, within the space of an hour I had spoken to both the incumbent President and his successor. That night, I flew to France. The following day, I was welcomed by the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who made me an honorary citizen. ‘Your commitment is echoed here, we support you’, she said.

She then reminded me of the Latin motto on the Parisian coat of arms, in the hope that it would help me when times were tough. Alluding to a ship, the motto reads: Fluctuat nec mergitur – she is tossed by the waves but does not sink. Just like Cemhuriyet.


Protests from Erdoğan

We didn’t have to wait long for the Turkish presidential palace to issue its protest about my meeting at Schloss Bellevue. ‘It is scandalous that the German President should receive an accused terrorist in his official residence’, fumed Erdoğan.

That was the command: ‘Attack!’ His armies of trolls and his loyal media immediately went on the attack.

I was now accustomed to the fact that applause was always followed by boos. But this time I paid a high price for the applause. The day after the meeting, on 8 November, the government newspapers appeared with the following headlines: ‘Gauck receives the traitor’, ‘Journalist accused of espionage invited to the German presidential palace’, ‘Give him the Grand Order of Merit!’

In the Star newspaper a columnist wrote: ‘Now it’s a matter for the secret service. Just as Ocalan was captured and taken to Turkey, an intelligence operation will bring Can Dündar back to face trial.’

His armies of trolls and his loyal media immediately went on the attack.

Another columnist even asked the question: ‘Isn’t there a hero in Europe who can deal with this?’ But the really interesting headline appeared in Akşam: ‘Can Dündar wraps himself in the US flag’. The accompanying photo in the paper showed someone sleeping on a leather sofa wrapped in the stars and stripes. It really was me. The photo went viral and triggered all kinds of comments. Now my true face had been revealed, and the photo proved which country I served. I was such a clueless spy that I covered myself with the flag of the country I was working for.

Others defended me, saying it had been photoshopped, but they were also confused. Why was the Encyclopaedia of Socialism and Socialist Struggles lying next to the sofa? A academic who supported the regime even published a serious and detailed analysis, in which he wrote things like: ‘It may seem paradoxical that both poles of the Cold War have come together in one photo, but in fact both have the goal of alienating Turkey from its own values.’

But what was really behind this photo? Why had I wrapped myself in the US flag? A few years ago a friend and I made a documentary about Deniz Gezmiş, the legendary student leader during the 1968 protests. We went days without sleep as we pored over books on the history of socialism in my friend's production studio and tinkered with the film.

One of the first political actions undertaken by Deniz and his friends was a protest against the US fleet that visited Turkey in 1968. On Istanbul's Taksim Square, students burned an American flag and then threw US soldiers who had come ashore into the sea. We acquired a US flag to symbolise this scene. We wanted to use it in the documentary by burning it in the background as we recounted the story of this protest. The night before we filmed the scene, I fell asleep in the office after many hours of editing work.

My friend, the director of the documentary, decided to have a bit of fun by covering me in the flag that we were going to burn the next morning – as it was the only ‘blanket’ in the room. The fact that the regime’s faithful media turned this flag into a big deal had its funny side. But the scary side was that the photo had been stored on my old phone, which the police had confiscated. On that same day, at a signal from Erdoğan, the police had provided the obedient press with the photo from my phone.

They were capable of all kinds of crimes, and on that day I was convinced of it yet again. But it all had consequences. One week later I ascertained that my column had not appeared in Cumhuriyet. I became suspicious. Because that was never a good sign in the history of the Turkish press. Whenever the phrase ‘This article could not appear due to a technical malfunction’ appeared in place of the column, it was clear that this was not a technical, but a political, malfunction.

On 18 November I was due to receive the Hermann Kesten Prize at the German PEN Centre in Darmstadt from the hands of Tagesthemen news anchor Thomas Roth. The writer Hermann Kesten was forced to leave his country during the Nazi regime and lived in exile for many years. The PEN centre offered refuge to writers in exile.

The photo had been stored on my old phone, which the police had confiscated. On that same day, at a signal from Erdoğan, the police had provided the obedient press with the photo from my phone.

As my car pulled up at the hotel where the award ceremony was taking place, Dilek called and told me the real reason why my column had not been printed. Along with the police who had passed on the photo, the public prosecutor had also taken action. He had a meeting with one of the newspaper’s managers, who had to testify at a hearing, and said about me: ‘A warrant is out for his arrest. Why are you continuing to let him write?’

Normally the response would have been: ‘That’s none of your business’, but these were not normal times. Our colleagues were behind bars, they were hostages, so to speak. Regardless of the content, the government was bothered that I was writing at all. And the fact that it was so concerned meant that it would not leave our people alone.

Certain lawyers said it would be better if I didn't write for a while. I had always resisted pressure and had never said to one of our writers: Don’t write! Not even to those who thought they had to teach me behind my back. It came as a bitter blow that now, after I had fought so long for freedom – in order to protect my detained colleagues – I was no longer allowed to write in the newspaper of which I had been editor-in-chief until just three months previously.

Normally I would have resigned immediately. But in the midst of this storm, such a resignation would have been given a different interpretation and it would only have harmed me, the newspaper, and my colleagues in prison. So I just had to accept it in silence. I said nothing. And so Cumhuriyet, the drum that I had once beaten so loudly, closed without a murmur.

But I would continue to fight for this newspaper. And that wasn’t all. I was politely told that it would be better if I did not go to the Alternative Nobel Prize, which was being awarded to the newspaper for its recent journalistic successes and its determined campaigning for the truth. I was told it might not look good if someone who was wanted by the police represented the newspaper at the award ceremony. ‘As you like’, I said and pulled out.


Campaign To Ban Books

But that was still not the end. On the same day, November 18th, my Turkish publisher e-mailed me to say he couldn’t print my new book. A campaign was underway to ban my books, people were being sent to bookstores to make sure my books were taken off the shelves. Under these circumstances, it was ‘risky’ to print my book. ‘They’re trying to isolate you’, he wrote, without realising that by writing this he was joining in with the chorus.

Of course, I once again felt bitter, but I said I understood. On the evening when I lost both my newspaper and my publisher because of what I had written, I was on my way to receive an award for what I had written. I went to the ceremony in Darmstadt with a wry smile on my lips. In my acceptance speech I spoke of a wound that hurts when you scratch the scar. Darkness and stupidity give the masses, who tag along behind, the feeling that they are being lifted up, when in fact they are plunging into the abyss. It is the writer’s job to explain the abyss to people who are plunging into it with howls of triumph.


It’s really not easy. Stupidity makes them blind. And the darkness serves to hide the truth. The writer lifts the curtain on the darkness, like picking the scab from a wound. It hurts people, it opens up their wounds. He calls out: ‘The wind that you think is blowing past you is actually blowing you into the abyss.’ That’s why he is not much loved. People only realise the truth of his words when they are at the bottom of the abyss.

Most writers no longer feel that their words are valued. My friends and colleagues who warned Turkey of the abyss it is falling into are in prison. They have been arrested for fighting against darkness and stupidity – by the guardians of darkness and stupidity. They have been handed over to the darkness. Now they are forbidden to speak to the world. They are forbidden to write, speak, send messages. And those who force them to be silent are constantly telling people: ‘You are on the up!’

And people flock to the abyss in their hordes. Deep into the stupidity and darkness.When you are fighting in the dark against the guardians of darkness, you have to be prepared to pay a high price for the fact that you dared to light a flame. Now we are paying this price and soon we will lose our jobs, our partners and spouses, our country, our freedom.

But we know that we have to pay this price if we are to win the fight against darkness and stupidity. That’s why we don’t complain, we fight.

One hundred and fifty journalists and writers are behind bars who have tried to tell Turkey about the abyss, who have tried to change the direction of the wind.

Photo of a mannequin which eyes are covered by a blindfold.
Stupidity makes them blind. And the darkness serves to hide the truth, photo: David Underland, pixabay

I accept this prize in their name. I know that every night is flanked by two days. I believe in the light. Mid-speech, my voice wavered for the first time, I couldn’t go on, couldn’t put a sentence together. I swallowed and paused. The audience thought I was being sentimental. But it was sadness. The next morning, while travelling back on the train, I spoke to Dilek.

We were due to make a mortgage interest payment on our house in Istanbul. The bank was pressing us. We had no money. Even if I sent all the money I had received for the awards and that I had earned during my three months in Germany, it wouldn't even cover half of the interest payment.

My friends and colleagues who warned Turkey of the abyss it is falling into are in prison. 

I couldn’t ask the newspaper or publishing house for a loan. ‘Should we sell the house?’ ‘It looks like the land registry has been threatened, they won’t allow the sale. And it’s possible they might seize the house. I could rent it out and move into a smaller apartment.’ ‘Call ....., perhaps he’ll give us a loan?’ ‘I’ve just rung him, he didn’t pick up.’ ‘Don’t worry, this will pass. We’ll start again.’ ‘I haven’t got the strength...’, she said and rang off because she could no longer speak. It felt as though her tears were running out of the phone straight into my heart. I called her back, but she didn’t answer. I had to give her strength, but how?

I had very little strength left myself. Germany flashed past the train windows. Remote, foreign, indifferent and cold. I put on my headphones and found a song on my phone by an old friend who had died in exile. I listened to him with a lump in my throat.

Covered in dust from head to toe
Before me, behind me, shrouded in mist
My beard dirty and matted
How are you supposed to know
How much my heart is burning.

I was a shoot, I was snapped off
I was a storm, I was held back
I’m tired, so tired
How are you supposed to know
What anguish I suffer.

I tore down stone walls and came here
I tore down iron bars and came here
I burned my life and came here, hey
How are you supposed to know
Why I was ablaze.

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