Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly spelled the name of Can Dundar. This version has been corrected.
TURKEY’S PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rounded another bend in his quest to become tyrant of the Bosphorus. Turkish prosecutors, responding to his complaint, have sought life terms in prison for two prominent journalists jailed for revealing what appears to be the government’s clandestine shipment of arms into Syria. The prosecutors asked an Instanbul court to sentence Can Dundar, editor of the newspaper Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gul, the paper’s Ankara correspondent, each to one aggravated life sentence, one ordinary life sentence and 30 years in jail.
The severity of the proposed punishment is shocking. An aggravated life sentence means tougher conditions, including fewer leisure hours. Such sentences might be appropriate for violent crimes, but in this case, Turkey’s president appears determined to make journalism a terrible crime. In the process he is further leading Turkey, a NATO ally, away from democracy and into the abyss of authoritarianism and ignorance.
The two journalists have been in the Silivri prison outside Istanbul since November. As we have described previously, on May 29 the newspaper published video on its website showing gendarmerie and police officers opening crates on the back of trucks, saying the cargo contained heavy weapons and ammunition bound for Syrian rebels sent by Turkey’s national intelligence agency, the MIT. The government had initially denied the trucks were carrying arms and said it was humanitarian aid; later, the government said the trucks may have been carrying arms destined for Turkmen kinsmen in Syria. In response to the video, Mr. Erdogan declared the newspaper had committed “slander” against the intelligence agency and “an act of espionage” and vowed to put Mr. Dundar away for life. Mr. Erdogan and the head of the MIT were named as plaintiffs in the 473-page indictment, according to reports from Turkey.
A coalition of 11 leading international press freedom and free expression groups demanded permission to visit the journalists recently, but was denied access. The groups pointed out the journalists have not been permitted to review the indictment against them and called for the charges to be dropped immediately. We applaud Vice President Biden for speaking out against Mr. Erdogan’s drive to silence reporting, saying that when the media, the Internet and free speech are curtailed, “that’s not the kind of example that needs to be set.” Secretary of State John F. Kerry got it right when he visited The Post’s new offices Jan. 28. “A country without a free and independent press has nothing to brag about, nothing to teach, and no way to fulfill its potential,” he said. “To those who try to intimidate or imprison reporters, we need to stand up and say loud and clear that committing journalism, reporting the truth, is not a crime. It is a badge of honor. It is a public service.” Mr. Erdogan must free the two Cumhuriyet journalists and dozens of others held in prison in Turkey for nothing more than committing journalism and exercising free speech. These are not crimes.