Turkish journalists turn to social media to escape state crackdown

More journalists in Turkey are turning to social media platforms such as YouTube and Periscope to broadcast and share their take on the latest news amid a harsh media landscape. 

Since the July 2016 coup attempt, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has shut down more than 175 news outlets, leaving more than 12,000 media workers without a job. Unemployment in journalism is among the highest rates of all sectors, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute.

To continue to work, and hopefully make a living, several leading journalists have turned to social media to present news and commentary directly to consumers, offering an alternative to traditional media that is now 90 percent controlled by allies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

"What makes my show appealing at this point is freedom of speech during my broadcasts. Or for some, what they miss is that journalism is being done,” Ünsal Ünlü told Ahval News. Ünlü, a veteran journalist, began putting his reporting on Periscope, a live video-streaming app, in August 2015.

Initially, he only had 15 viewers. But word soon got out. Now, a daily average of 20,000 people from nearly 80 countries enjoy his independent views via YouTube, Soundcloud, and iTunes.

Shows similar to Ünlü’s have been gaining popularity in recent years. A programme called Evening with Irfan Değirmenci runs daily during the week and has attracted more than 150,000 viewers on YouTube.

Like many others, Değirmenci was dismissed from his job at the pro-government television station Kanal D for announcing that he would vote “no” in the April 2017 constitutional referendum, which gave President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sweeping powers.

Şükrü Küçükşahin, who worked at several media outlets such as Günaydın, Sabah, Hürriyet, CNBC-E/NTV, uses online platforms to provide what he says is objective news, which he said is needed in Turkey’s political climate today.  

“I don't see anything in the name of journalism in the programmes on TV,” said Küçükşahin. “There are so many questions to ask, but no one is asking them. There's no open criticism. We freely evaluate what’s on the country's agendas in these broadcasts, and we look at it critically. We ask the questions that no one else can ask."

Küçükşahin produces a weekday show called 4 x 4 Agenda and is known for being critical of the government.

Ünlü also reflected how editorial independence is largely missing from journalism in Turkey, mainly through censorship and self-censorship.

“The media is going through its worst period in history,” he said. “The columnists and commentators of the government-controlled media are placed on a pedestal, and some industry magnates have entered the sector to cosy up to the government despite not being closely related to broadcasting or journalism.”

Nearly all of the owners of Turkey’s mainstream media outlets do business with the state in other sectors such as energy, mining, or construction, but the social media news producers do not have to answer to a boss.

"As the mainstream media becomes the voice and spokesperson of the administration, those who wonder about what’s going on behind closed doors turn to us,” said Küçükşahin.

Scores of journalists are in prison in Turkey, while Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey 157th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index.

Nevşin Mengü, a well-known journalist at news broadcaster CNN Türk, told the left-wing Evrensel newspaper about the reasoning behind the government’s mistreatment of journalists.

“Here the concepts of homeland and Erdoğan are intertwined,” she said. “Therefore, when we say 'Mr. president did something wrong,' you are stigmatised as an enemy of Turkey. We are always in a state of emergency, and the AKP government perceives every criticism as a conspiracy against them. But when you’re reporting on something, you're treated like you're plotting something or treated as a spy, and I don't think that's healthy at all.”

The government crackdown has created an appetite for independent reporting.

“What I wanted was independent journalism to fill every hour of the day,” said Küçükşahin. “For there to be a type of journalism accessible to every citizen who wants it. The audience sees how this kind of broadcasting is being done, and the reason they prefer these shows is that they see them as being critical."

Ünlü said the lack of solidarity between journalists also added to the challenge of reporting.

"In this country, a journalist wanted to ask the minister of agriculture a question but was removed from the room,” he said. “If this happened in our time, we would have all left the room. But everyone is afraid of losing their jobs. Compared to eight to 10 years ago, there is no solidarity.”

Despite everything, flickers of hope remain, thanks in part to social media outlets.

Küçükşahin remains optimistic. "We live in the information age,” he said. “And those who are authoritarian will not be able to stand it any longer. The world wants to learn from journalists."  

Ünlü also sees reason for hope. “The media isn't finished yet, but it's slowing to a crawl,” he said. “Newspapers are crumbling like television stations. But in spite of everything, we will find new methods, and we will not give up on journalism. Journalism isn't over as long as we can find a way to do it.”