ANKARA (Reuters) - Lawyers for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan have accused a newspaper editor of espionage and want him jailed for life, the paper said on Tuesday, the latest salvo in a bitter dispute that has alarmed defenders of media freedom in Turkey.
In the countdown to a June 7 parliamentary election, the Cumhuriyet newspaper infuriated Erdogan last Friday by publishing video footage it said showed the MIT state intelligence agency helping to send weapons to Syria.
In an article posted on its website, Cumhuriyet - long critical of Erdogan and of Turkey’s ruling AK Party - said its editor Can Dundar was now facing charges that included “crimes against the government” and “providing information concerning national security” over the video footage.
Cumhuriyet said Erdogan’s lawyers had lodged a criminal complaint with the Istanbul prosecutor’s office. No one from Erdogan’s office was immediately available to comment.
Speaking to the state broadcaster TRT on Saturday, Erdogan said the journalist behind the publication of the video would “pay a high price” for his actions and vowed to take legal action.
Reuters reported on May 21, citing a prosecutor and court testimony, that MIT helped deliver arms to parts of Syria under Islamist rebel control in late 2013 and early 2014.
The witness testimony contradicts Turkey’s denials that it sent arms to Syrian rebels and, by extension, contributed to the rise of Islamic State, now a major concern for the NATO member.
Syria and some of Turkey’s Western allies say Turkey, in its haste to see President Bashar al-Assad toppled, let fighters and arms over the border, some of whom went on to join Islamic State which now controls swathes of Syria and Iraq.
Cumhuriyet said its video dated from Jan. 19, 2014 but did not say how it had obtained the footage.
Erdogan has said the trucks stopped that day belonged to MIT and were carrying aid to Turkmens in Syria.
He has said prosecutors had no authority to search MIT vehicles and were part of what he calls a “parallel state” run by his ally-turned-foe Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Islamic cleric who Erdogan says is bent on discrediting him and the Turkish government.
Dundar defended his paper’s actions on his Twitter account on Monday.
“We are journalists, not civil servants. Our duty is not to hide the dirty secrets of the state but to hold those accountable on behalf of the people,” he said.
Reporting by Jonny Hogg and Humeyra Pamuk, writing by Jonny Hogg; Editing by Gareth Jones