As the space for freedom of speech in Turkey continues to shrink, local journalists are turning to alternative channels in order to keep independent media alive.
Turkey is ranked 157 among 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) annual World Press Freedom Index. Since the failed coup attempt in 2016, hundreds of journalists have been fired or forced to resign, while Turkish authorities have closed more than 180 media outlets. There are currently 134 media employees in prison in the country that RSF has dubbed “the world’s biggest jailer of professional journalists”.
According to Bianet, an independent Turkish press agency based in Istanbul, as many as 3,000 people in the media sector have lost their jobs in recent years.
In response, journalists – including some well-known faces with decades of experience – have begun broadcasting on YouTube and Periscope TV– a live video streaming service owned by Twitter – as well as blogging or using social media to reach a wider audience and earn a living.
Zeynepgül Alp used to work as a reporter, editor and news producer in several mainstream TV stations before she was fired.
She then started working as an editor and presenter on Turkey’s first news podcast, Pod 360 (https://medyapod.com/pod-360/) and said she relished the new-found freedom to broadcast without any fear or censorship.
“In my podcast programme, I could discuss any subject I wanted without asking for anyone’s permission or approval. And, of course, it was very practical because I didn’t need a whole team – I could do everything by myself,” she said.
Pod 360 broadcasts on Medyapod, one of the country’s biggest podcast networks established last year with a stated aim to bring together “journalists, bloggers, activists, scholars, sports lovers, technology enthusiasts, artists and art experts” to contribute to the struggle for freedom of speech in Turkey.
Alp, who now works as an editor at a small TV channel, emphasised that there were disadvantages to working in the alternative media, not least the poor and unpredictable income, absence of social security – and “the lack of recognition by the people whom you want to interview because you don’t work for a familiar media brand”.
But for many journalists, these alternative outlets have proven to be a rare chance to report without fear of censorship.
“Some of them now have a great number of followers and don’t have any financial worries, while others are struggling. But the common point for all of them is that they have a lot of independence,” Alp said.
One well-known journalist Cüneyt Özdemir, who used to work for Kanal D before he left the country in 2015, now works for CNN Turk from abroad and uses his phone to film “any subject he wants, and then shares it on YouTube”, Alp said.
Indeed, Özdemir has half-a-million followers on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/cuneytozdemir/) and some of his videos get more than three million views (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oURh_Z6Dca0).
Faruk Bildirici, who spent 27 years at the Turkish daily Hürriyet, said he also relished the opportunity for editorial independence now that he works alone.
“In Hürriyet, [the management] didn’t want me to criticize the newspaper or point out their mistakes. I could not accept that, and they no longer tolerated me, so I was fired,” Bildirici explained.
As it had been very difficult for him to find employment in mainstream publications, he turned to digital media instead.
“I am the only person responsible for the content that I produce. I can express my opinions and criticisms easily and don’t have to worry whether someone will be upset by it or not,” he said.
“Also, with a small investment one can reach people immediately. Digital media platforms are very democratic and interactive, and it’s great that you can see people’s reactions instantly.”
The only downside, Bildirici continued, was the irregular income. He said that the Turkish public could support freedom of speech in the country by helping fund independent, online outlets through membership or donations.
Another problem for Turkish journalists is that most mainstream outlets are now under government control, due to the acquisition of the country’s biggest media group by a pro-government conglomerate.
Many journalists from once-respectable mainstream media outlets decided that they could no longer tolerate a new, increasingly biased pro-government editorial policy that leaves very little – if any – room for criticism.
Tunca Öğreten, who previously worked for a Turkish newspaper Taraf, and online news portals Diken and Al-Monitor, said that the government control over the mainstream media in Turkey meant that “it’s impossible to get any objective, non-partisan news from those sources”.
“The conventional media in Turkey have hit rock bottom, and as a result, the media that used to be ‘alternative’ has now become mainstream,” he continued.
Öğreten now works for Deutsche Welle Turkey and their Turkish-language You Tube channel +90. He said that solo journalists using new digital channels needed to be extra-vigilant when it came to accuracy and the quality of their work.
“The online media are often in a hurry to be the first to report the news and that leads to many mistakes,” he said. “However, the good news is that correcting errors on news portals is much easier than in print newspapers. Still, the authors should do everything they can to prevent mistakes from happening.”
Despite the current bleak situation of the media, Tirşe Erbaysal Filibeli, head of new media at Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University, is optimistic about the future.
“In our age, it is impossible to silence a journalist who has something to say,” she said. “A trustworthy and respectable journalist is always a journalist, regardless of where he or she works and for which media they produce content. The quality of their work makes journalists who they are, not the institutions they work for.”
Filibeli emphasised that the new media required more creativity from journalists.
“They have to interact with their audience and create a loyal mass of followers by producing high-quality, multimedia content. They also must use digital verification tools to make sure that their content is accurate,” she said. “That is the only way they can survive working in the digital media.”