Can Dundar is the former editor in chief of the leading Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet. He is now living in exile.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has played up the despicable killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to his own considerable advantage. From his relentless pursuit of Khashoggi’s murderers, you’d almost think he has genuine concern for freedom of the press. Don’t believe a word of it.
The first time I met Erdogan was in the late 1990s. We ran into each other at the Istanbul Book Fair; he stood up to shake my hand. At that time he was the mayor of Istanbul, having been an active Islamist since his university days. Though we were on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, I protested on his behalf when, in 1997, he was sentenced to prison for reading a poem with religious motifs, out of my belief in freedom of expression. He was imprisoned in 1999.
Upon his release four months later, Erdogan reemerged with the aura of a folk hero. Buoyed by this new status, he formed his political party in 2001 and began making preparations to take power. He began by flying to the United States to meet senior U.S. officials. He also visited Fethullah Gulen, the leader of an Islamic religious moment whom, at that time, Erdogan was eager to court. This was followed by a meeting in Davos with George Soros, from whom he requested support.
After Erdogan was elected as prime minister, we met a second time for a documentary I was shooting. He told me with pride about his years of poverty, about working as a janitor for an Istanbul public transport company and about playing soccer on the company’s team.
As Erdogan accumulated ever greater power, his arrogance increased as well. One by one he declared his erstwhile allies — the United States, Gulen and Soros — to be his enemies. He regarded any criticism as defamation, responding with countless lawsuits. He labeled his critics as “traitors.”
I, of course, was one of these “traitors.” I had produced a documentary about how this man who spent his youth in poverty had gotten rich in power. Additionally, I had published footage showing the Turkish intelligence service illegally delivering weapons to Islamist groups in Syria. Erdogan was unable to refute the revelation, but the next day he appeared on TV, declaring, “The person who reported this is going to pay a heavy price.”
I paid by standing trial, facing two life sentences, serving three months in jail and enduring an attack by a gunman on the day of the court’s decision. The assailant missed his mark, but as he opened fire, he screamed out the same epithet Erdogan had used for me: “Traitor!”
(It’s worth noting that my would-be assassin was released without punishment, while my wife, who jumped on the assailant to protect me, has been banned from leaving the country, so that we’ve been separated from each other for the past two and a half years.)
Amid the worsening crackdown on free speech after the coup attempt in 2016, I decided to leave Turkey. I continued working as a journalist in Germany, since journalism had become nearly impossible in my homeland. When Erdogan held a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany in September, I planned to ask him questions that couldn’t be asked in Turkey. When Erdogan learned that I was credentialed for the event, he threatened to cancel, saying, “If he comes, I won’t.” I chose not to attend the news conference to ward off a diplomatic crisis.
But Erdogan’s rage had only worsened. Upon his return to Turkey, he recalled an old case: Five years ago, a group of young people had banded together to prevent the construction of a shopping mall on a park in the heart of Istanbul. Their Gezi Park protest movement quickly became the largest of its kind in Turkey’s history. Erdogan figured he could fire up his own supporters by casting the Gezi protesters as new enemies ahead of pending elections.
First, he targeted Osman Kavala, a businessman and human rights activist who has been held for a year in prison without any charges. He called Kavala “the man who funded the terrorists at Gezi,” and then said that “Soros, the Hungarian Jew who spends his money trying to divide nations,” was behind Kavala.
Of course, Erdogan never realized that the photograph from his meeting with Soros would come to light, which it did. There aren’t many media outlets left to publish such a photograph anyway, since most of them are tied to him and the remainder are daunted by punishment. The following day, Soros’s Open Society Foundation announced that it was closing its Turkey branch.
The pro-Erdogan media published claims that I had incited the Gezi Park protests under Kavala’s instruction. Prosecutors subsequently issued another warrant for my arrest.
Luckily, I was already in Germany, and the Germans refused my extradition.
The difference between me and Jamal Khashoggi is that his assailants were better prepared and didn’t miss their target. So now, whenever I hear Erdogan vow to follow the case of Khashoggi’s murder to the very end, I can only laugh.