Dec. 10, 2017 is international Human Rights Day, starting the lead-up to the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To mark it, the International Press Institute (IPI) is publishing Direct Damage, a series of four articles by journalists in Turkey examining the impact that pressure on the media has on other aspects of democratic society. This article is the first of four entries in that series.
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“Even though the media organisations that I follow have been closed, there are still people who want to make that news. Their willingness to bring us the news in some way increased my desire to reach them.”
These words belong to Dilara Ekici, 22. Facebook, Twitter, Periscope and online television channels: Ekici now has new methods to reach information. She believes that media is “trying to recreate itself” and indicates that she suffered a blow when channels’ broadcasts were completely stopped, rather than just being removed from satellites.
“We now can’t access the news made by people who are liberal and care about human rights in the first place,” Ekici, a political science student at Galatasaray University, says. “But employees there have already started to find a solution for that, as well.”
Ekici was in her senior year of high school when the 2013 Gezi Park protests erupted. But the impact began to slowly fade away from television broadcasts with the advent of “penguin media” and increased Internet use. The Internet and social media became a part of life.
Didn’t the protests themselves already mark a turning point in the use of social media?
They were, for Ekici, who says that the mainstream media today has very limited freedom in terms of the stories and news reports it publishes.
“I think that traditional media is being manipulated and many people are being exploited in this regard,” she comments. “Sometimes, it’s even understood from the language they use, even if they claim to be objective.”
The July 15 coup attempt was also another milestone for Ekici. In its aftermath, she found herself in a struggle to receive information. She now follows the many websites that went live after dozens of media outlets were closed under the state of emergency, as well as live feeds available via mobile devices; in short, the digital world.
Dr. Aslı Tunç, a professor with the Faculty of Communication at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, says that young people in Turkey who are urbanised, educated and have a command of digital media tools have not used traditional media as a source of information for some time.
“Social media and the Internet have their own problems in the sense of journalism, of course, but a qualified, well-trained human resource that can no longer exist in the mainstream in terms of doing good journalism, can do the job on the Internet,” she says. “In a sense, technology has the capacity to create a liberating space for principled journalists passionately committed to journalism.”
Sometimes, this liberating space is not enough for Ekici. She says she thinks that transparency lessens and that what is right cannot come to light as long as journalists are under pressure.
“The news you can access is now the news you’re allowed to access,” she explains. “Right now, there are tons of things which we don’t know or should know, and we have to have access to them.”
Two views, similar method
Things are a bit different for Ekici’s peer, Tunahan Elmas, a young law student closely interested in politics who served in a Justice and Development Party (AKP) organisation in his early years at university. He says that information is not difficult to reach, especially now, when everything is at the tip of his finger.
“I happen to check out dissident news sites from time to time,” he comments. “New media is now well developed; no one can completely block access to information.”
Elmas works as the editor of a social content platform owned by the Albayrak Group, which is close to the government.
Even if they have different views, these two university students have one thing in common: Internet journalism and social media. Elmas is a bit more dependent on traditional methods than Ekici, but digital news has opened a new door for him, too. He follows who he chooses on Twitter and finds the information he is looking for in social media and on Internet sites.
“From where I stand, a person who streams online via social media, via Periscope, even if his media channel has been shut down, is broadcasting,” he says. “You can watch them. I personally don’t have any problem in accessing information.”
But his position is clear when it comes to the question of freedom of the press.
“We definitely cannot say that press is entirely under arrest, but yes, there are problems if we go back to five to six years earlier,” Elmas explains, describing the situation as a “necessity of the times”. He adds: “The government is working to keep anti-government terrorist organisations from making propaganda.”
According to international press freedom and human rights organisations, Turkey is a country of growing constraints and pressure. Local media monitoring organisation Bianet reports that 173 media organisations were closed in the first three months under the state of emergency declared following the 2016 coup attempt and that nearly 2,500 journalists have lost their jobs.
The Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS) counts 150 journalists behind bars and the government faces accusations that it has used the state of emergency to suppress dissident media.
Uğur Güç, a representative of the Contemporary Gazeteciler Association in Istanbul, says: “Opening a case and arresting journalists for every opposing, critical news report intimidates those who work in media and leads to self-censorship. News that the government does not want is blocked by media bosses. This destroys the freedom of the people to receive news.”
Both the figures and those sharing their experience prove that; the ‘pursuit’ of news – to share or to receive – started long ago and continues for both journalists and readers.
The Reuters Institute, in its 2017 Digital News Report, said that although the mainstream media still maintains its traditional dominant place, use of conventional methods to receive news declined in the last three years. Alternatively, social media and digital news channels are being followed more than before, and articles and digital news are being shared via online chat apps and social media.
The study refers not only to the reader’s pursuit, but the journalist’s, too. Pressure on opposition media has led to the creation of digital news portals where independent journalism is practiced.
“Certain journalists who can’t publish in Turkey started publishing activities abroad,” Güç says, summarising the situation. “Some journalists unemployed by the closure of media organisations continue to fight for freedom of press and practice journalism over social media by creating initiatives”.
For example, Artigercek.com and Artı TV, which operate under the same roof, were founded in Cologne, Germany in the first months of 2017. Habersizsiniz, which makes news fully via correspondents’ tools and materials, started in November 2017. Approximately one year ago, Can Dündar, former executive director of the newspaper Cumhuriyet, founded Özgürüz.org, which publishes in Turkish, in Berlin. Medyascope, founded in August 2015, and Gazete Duvar, founded in the summer of 2016, are also notable initiatives.
Internet: Free? Reliable?
As the Internet becomes an increasingly important tool for young people to access information, Prof. Dr. Ali Çarkoğlu of the Department of International Relations at Istanbul’s Koç University says that it is not an ideal environment to access information.
“I think the Internet is neither a reliable nor pluralistic environment for accessing information,” he comments. “On the contrary, environments in which everyone resembles each other and different choices are minimised have become the nature of the Internet. If environments where traditional differences can cohabitate can’t be created in the traditional media, then they’re unlikely to be found on the Internet, in my opinion.”
On the other hand, the issue of freedom makes an environment in which reliability is already suspect more challenging. The number of websites that Turkey’s government blocked has increased by some 300 percent in the last three years, leading Turkey to drop in rankings in U.S.-based think tank Freedom House’s 2017 annual “Freedom on the Net” report.
According to Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council, “reality shows”, women-oriented programmes and series were the most-watched content on television in 2016.
However, traditional methods of receiving news hold on. Filiz Gündüz, a research assistant at Marmara University’s Faculty of Communication, says that despite the fact that young people are turning to digital media, the vast majority of Turkey’s people still use conventional methods such as television, radio and newspapers, and that there is no deterioration in freedom of information.
“I don’t think that closure of some media channels and denial of access to Internet sites under state of emergency decisions have an impact on freedom of information,” she explains. “Because, from where I stand, we see that the platforms that reach wide masses continue their activities.”
Gündüz comments that, in contrast to one facilitating criticism, she considers this period to be a “polyphonic” period, adding: “It’s a request from the citizen that government make necessary intervention when security is at stake and remove any type of threat, including terrorist propaganda.”
At age 70, Mahmut Durak, an artisan in Istanbul’s Fatih district, says that he can watch his favourite channel and receive the news as he desires when he goes home in the evening. He laughs, saying “everybody keeps talking, no such thing as pressure at all!”, as he turns to deal with a customer who has entered his shop. He has five children: three girls are still in school.
For as long as he can remember, he has watched on the state broadcaster. Of the others, he says: “They’re biased, they dish the dirt.”
Issue of trust
It is a fact that politics is beginning to manifest itself with increasingly sharp lines. Çarkoğlu, who also focuses on issues such as the relationship between media and politics in Turkey, underlines the relationship between press and political parties.
“We wouldn’t exaggerate if we were to say ‘it’s like there’s no neutral newspaper in terms of support for parties’,” he adds, commenting that the press in Turkey can be seen as an extension of politics.
This situation has broken the trust of Artur Saroyan, who runs a café in Balat, one of Istanbul’s historical districts. Today, he says, he reads only selected news from certain sources, sometimes via Facebook, sometimes through online applications. He also checks the breaking news notifications on his mobile device, just to know what’s going on.
A Turkish citizen of Armenian origin, Saroyan has chosen to take a step back after having witnessed 53 years of life and politics. He explains his vexation, commenting: “There is biased, non-objective news or incomplete news. After a limitation here, we slowly had to withdraw from reading newspapers, following news and main news bulletins”.
Saroyan says he spends all day in Balat now, has become introverted and has turned toward a more non-political life.
“How valiant or courageous can any journalist be after seeing all this pressure?” he asks.
Nevertheless, Saroyan expresses hope. He says that he thinks the situation will be resolved with patience and time.
“The history of the country, the situation and the chaos it is experiencing is obvious,” he comments, getting ready for a new day in his shop. “I think that this is a period, a process, and I believe and expect a much-more-independent press to come back.”
The framework observed when we examine freedom of the press in Turkey’s past is not exactly promising. In the initial years of the Republic, in the 1950s and in post-coup eras, people faced extremely difficult periods and journalists worked under severe conditions; self-censorship was practiced and freedom of information was denied to the public. The 1990s, in particular, saw periods in which media employees were killed every few weeks.
However, the Turkey representative for Reporters Without Borders, Erol Önderoğlu, comments that the current situation has become more “operational” under the state of emergency following the coup attempt. He says that journalism faces a radical attempt to destroy it systematically, from editorial offices to the streets and the courts.
“In a Turkey that has already gone through 15 years of EU negotiations, we suffer from such severe issues, when we could be taking more positive decisions,” he explains. “Journalism is practiced under very harsh conditions, such as censorship, trial, custody, arbitrary arrest.”
It may be easier for Turkey’s youth to move past this period, but it remains one of the most difficult for journalists. As long as Art. 28 of Turkey’s Constitution continues to state that “the press is free and shall not be censored”, many believe that this period will pass and they await its end. Before the new habits become routine.
Neyran Elden is a freelance journalist and news producer based in Istanbul. A native of Izmir, she studied international relations and obtained her master’s degree in journalism in France.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect the views of the International Press Institute (IPI).