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Turkish journalist Can Dündar after he won the Golden Pen of Freedom Award at the World News Media Congress in Durban on Wednesday. PHOTO: Leon Lestrade/ANA PHOTO

“The biggest prison” for journalists. This was how Can Dündar described the situation in his home country Turkey as he stepped up on stage at the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (Wan Ifra) congress in Durban on Wednesday to receive the prestigious 2017 Golden Pen of Freedom award.

Dündar received the award at the opening of the conference currently underway at the Durban International Convention Centre, in recognition of his courage and role in upholding the values of a free press.

About 150 journalists are currently jailed in Turkey and in a moving acceptance speech, Dündar said: “When you have press freedom as air or water, you take it for granted. It’s only when you see just how fragile it is, or how quickly it can be lost that you realise you have to fight for it. I suspect my American colleagues have just become aware of this point.”

Before fleeing his home country he was imprisoned without trial for 92 days. This was after Turkey’s oldest newspaper, Cumhuriyet, of which he was editor-in-chief, published an expose of how the Turkish intelligence was smuggling weapons to Syrian rebels.

He was charged with being part of a terrorist organisation and for revealing state secrets and imprisoned in November 2015. He was released in February 2016 when the Supreme court ruled against his imprisonment.

In May 2016, an attempt was made on his life by a gunman in front of an Istanbul court where Dündar was appearing for treason charges.

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He was sentenced to five years in prison in connection with the charges but is currently living in exile in Germany. His wife remains behind in Turkey having had her passport confiscated by authorities. Dündar himself is considered a fugitive in his home country.

He said currently some of his colleagues at Cumhuriyet had been in jail for 220 days without trial.

“The number one suspect in that case is me. I am accused of changing the editorial policy of the newspaper. We are talking of a country where a prosecutor defines editorial policy.”

Among Africans to have won the award are Gabriel Makoso of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gitobu Imanyara of Kenya, Pius Njawe of Cameroon, Omar Belhouchet of Algeria, Geoffrey Nyarota of Zimbabwe, Mahjoub Mohamed Salih of Sudan, Dawit Isaak Eritrea/Sweden, Eskinder Nega of Ethiopia and South Africans Donald Wood, Percy Qoboza and Anthony Heard.

Opening the congress, President of WAN-IFRA, Tomas Brunegård said a free press is one of the cornerstones of a prosperous democratic society.

“Yet, this fact is more undermined today than we have seen in decades. Even the leader of the so-called ‘free world’, the President of the United States, has challenged this by labeling a free press ‘the enemy of the American people’.

– African News Agency (ANA)