Sarphan Uzunoğlu
Nov 19 2017

The long read: Turkey’s lonely, helpless journalists

Talking about journalism in Turkey is often left to fast-thinkers, activists or politicians. In the mainstream media, it is almost impossible to have a debate about the future of a journalism in Turkey, let alone the freedom of expression.

Even if books and ideas, such as Ümit Kıvanç's recent book, bring forth academic debates, or a few media organisations, such as Journo.com.tr or Platform24.org, provide a platform for debate, the economic and technological dimensions of the crisis in media are most often treated like ordinary issues.

Yet, we really need to talk about multidimensional insecurity in the field of journalism.

Digital revenues are increasing, while the print is decreasing. But online publication models in Turkey have not yet become self-sufficient. Turkey has an official Press Advertisement Agency and similar centralised mechanisms are at the heart of the Turkish print model. Yet, the digital’s outcome for journalists is similar: a form of certain precariousness.

Then, how we may fight against precariousness in journalism industry? What would enable us to make journalism in Turkey live in a healthy way again?

After spending two years interviewing with union activists, freelance journalists and some former or current high-level managers in the news industry for my PhD thesis; I gained some insights, some of which might be universal, while some of them are only meaningful for Turkey’s journalism environment.

First, let’s identify the disease and its symptoms: At the heart of the existing journalism crisis in Turkey there are the media ownership, journalism laws and regulations. This is in addition to the ongoing global wave of precarisation.

While most of the intellectuals see a crisis of “freedom of speech” in Turkey, I see a media system that is financially and ethically collapsed which couldn’t survive without political affiliation or state support.

The results of the 2016 project "Media Ownership Monitor (MOM) Turkey" by IPS Communication Foundation (bianet) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has demonstrated that most media owners have business interests in other industries, such as energy, transport and construction, and thereby depend on the government for public contracts in these sectors.

In Turkish television, still the most popular type of media, seven out of ten most popular channels belong to owners who are politically affiliated with the ruling party.

Not only with the government; the relationship between media and politics in Turkey is visible in the way the news is reported, which depends on the changes in the policies of the groups they are affiliated with.

Political affiliations of 10 most-watched TV channels in Turkey. RSF Media Ownership Monitor Turkey
Political affiliations of 10 most-watched TV channels in Turkey. RSF Media Ownership Monitor Turkey

The way media owners approach journalism as a profession, and their vision for the future of journalism is quite pathetic. A recent example might be the media conglomerate Doğan Holding’s so called ‘new app,’ announced in an innovation summit, which plans to integrate citizen journalism and professional journalism. This is already an old idea as some international newsrooms such as The Guardian have already done it five years ago. In Turkey as well, many other newsrooms such as Dokuz8 and 140Journos have all based their activities on citizens’ efforts for years.

While global newsrooms and universal innovators such as The Guardian and Quartz are working on technologies like chat bots, drone journalism, augmented and virtual reality, Doğan’s app is case in point for Turkish journalism, not only for its lack of innovation, but also because of its economically questionable approach to the problem (whether the citizen journalists will be paid for their labour etc.) in Turkey.

"With the help of an application, you all will be our reporters" - Doğan Holding IT director Handan Karakuş #ITsummit #rekonomi

All in all, Turkey’s media economy is based on click baiting and SEO (search engine optimisation) concerns that does not serve social good; its content is tainted by polarization and hate speech from politics; while the media in general is also silenced (or not authorised) by the government.

Next to censorship, there are the auto-control mechanisms which the media owners consider as a safety belt. One is the fast thinkers (from Bourdieu), who only express ideas that can be accepted by governmental authorities even if they sound to be oppositional. The other is gatekeepers who are assigned or self-assigned to decide what’s to be published, or who is to be invited as a guest.

Public broadcasting, on the other hand, is totally biased towards the ruling party, and it is also intellectually shallow; perhaps, except the English-language TRT World service.

Opposition and alternative media side is not so bright either. Popular opposition media outlets also rely on (oppositional) political party support. Some have populist and polarising broadcast strategies that use discriminative language on issues such as refugees.

Alternative media outlets don’t have a feasible income models. Some rely on crowdsourcing, while others on international funds from governmental or non-governmental foreign organisations. The latter makes them a target by their rivals and local actors, or not effective or brave enough in political reporting due to political legal risks.

At the end of the day, journalists working on the alternative side feel even more precarious as their businesses are always under financial and political pressure.

Broadcast equipment is placed on a poster during a protest outside a court where the trial of about a dozen employees of the Cumhuriyet daily newspaper on charges of aiding terror groups, continues in Istanbul, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017. Most of the staff were released from prison earlier this month, but four of them, including editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu and investigative journalist Ahmet Sik, are still in prison. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Broadcast equipment is placed on a poster during a protest outside a court where the trial of about a dozen employees of the Cumhuriyet daily newspaper on charges of aiding terror groups, continues in Istanbul, 31 Oct 2017. AP/Lefteris Pitarakis

Turkish journalists have also experienced great loss of reputation in the eyes of the society.

Some journalists are accused of being agents of certain political or interest groups; and some do not even deny this role attributed to them. They rather define themselves as non-armed militants of a certain group; some even make pro-violence statements.

This naturally doesn’t help when the governments, such as by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, accuse professional journalism as acts of propaganda, associating them with organisations they have no connection to.

Trade unions and journalism NGOs are not there to protect journalists because they are weakened by laws and removed from influence over the newsrooms thanks to a financial system that enables bosses but not the employees. There are many journalists in Turkey, who think that they work for a newspaper, but they are in fact registered as an industry worker, as in logistics workers’ union or office workers’ union. De-unionisation strategies of post-1980 coup and the liberalisation wave in early 1990s in Turkey’s media environment isolated journalists from each other.

Journalists are not setting the political agenda any more, their work do not matter as much as it used to be. Reproducing content within same political division lines, unable to bring public debate with deeper perspectives is making their journalistic efforts less attractive than it has ever been. While controlled by politics, journalists are isolated from politicians; they are either not allowed to ask questions, or imposing self-censorship.

Digital skills used in the news room. International Center for Journalists, “The State of Technology in Global Newsrooms”
Digital skills used in the news room. International Center for Journalists, “The State of Technology in Global Newsrooms”

It is a pity that Turkey’s high rate of internet penetration and social media usage do not translate to new media literacy among journalists.

As International Center for Journalists’ (ICFJ) “The State of Technology in Global Newsrooms” report puts it, in Turkey neither journalists nor media owners are passionate enough about developing new media literacy skills.

Except a few reporters, such as from Cumhuriyet, which reported on Panama and Paradise Papers; most journalists don’t know how to set up data and conduct research. On data visualization or social video production, examples of which are commonly produced by newsrooms such as Al Jazeera, BBC or The Guardian, Turkey is lagging again.

Language is certainly a barrier for the most, as English proficiency is still an exceptional quality. This fact closes their access to global debates and sources.

While Turkey has unique problems, it is not necessarily true that the crisis of journalism in Turkey is also unique and that its problems could only be resolved through a sharp political change in Turkey.

Turkey’s journalists have much in common with what others on international newsrooms experience under the current neoliberal media sphere. Political oppression is only one layer of that experience; but that shouldn’t stop us from debating the financial, technological and intellectual problems of journalism in Turkey.