Their profession having been increasingly restricted by the political authorities, the judiciary and — most visible of all — by the greedy media barons, Turkey’s dignified, respected journalists are seeking new, free and independent paths.
While large swaths of their colleagues are under the strain of self-censorship due to daily political and economic pressures, some of them have found a way to inform the public properly: through online news portals, websites and social media.
The recent scandal at the daily Milliyet has become a game changer. It began at the end of February, with the newspaper publishing a scoop on the government's negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), revealing minutes of the meeting between the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and the deputies of the PKK’s political wing, the Peace and Democracy Party.
Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was quick to lash out at Milliyet for running what he saw as an unprintable story, and the publishers of Milliyet, the Demiroren family, trembled. As a result, the editor of the newspaper, Derya Sazak, was forced to retreat and told to fire an internationally known, veteran journalist, Hasan Cemal, because he had defended the good journalism of Milliyet, for which he had long been a columnist.
In a column that Milliyet’s publisher censored and and its editor refused to print, Cemal was fierce in his criticism of the owners of Turkish media for destroying the independence and freedom he had fought for for more than 45 years. When his article was rejected, the 60-year-old Cemal parted ways with Milliyet and chose an interesting path.
As of Monday, April 15, he is out in the field, reporting restlessly in daily columns, live blogs and on Twitter from Turkey’s Kurdish areas, taking the country’s pulse on the ongoing PKK disarmament process.
“As long as there are we journalists around, there will always be good, robust journalism,” he declared on April 16 on T24, the independent news website with which he is now affiliated.
In this country, which today is in a state of social and political flux, digital journalism indeed is a ray of hope. Print media is dying a slow death, steadily losing ad revenue to online platforms in an environment where internet penetration nationally is above 50%, and 70% in urban areas.
More and more young people are getting their information exclusively online. According to fresh data presented by the UNESCO National Committee in Turkey, 87% of those between 14 and 28 get their news online. Internet users in Turkey today are top global Facebook users. Other social media, particularly Twitter and Instagram, are also on the rise, putting Turkey among the top five in Europe.
There are at the moment more than 150 news portals and journalism websites in Turkey, operating independently and seeking ways to profit. Their optimism is justified as annual ad revenue shares are shifting from print to online, which came close to 10% by the end of last year. This may also be the reason why, for example, the Wall Street Journal recently launched a website in Turkish.
“Let your newspapers be all yours, real journalism will always be ours,” claimed Dogan Akin, founder of the independent and growing news site T24. When he was also forced to leave Milliyet some years ago (a coincidence), Akin, one of Turkey’s most devoted professional journalists, decided to build a outlet for quality reporting.
As some of us also do, he saw the root cause of the Turkish media’s maladies for what it was. More than the government and the judiciary, he maintains, it is the media moguls — who control around 80% of the sector — who are to blame for the erosion of journalism.
“When the media proprietors have other business than media, they become easy targets for rulers to be driven to submission. We have just witnessed that a new EU report on Turkey pointed them out as the stumbling blocks before free, independent journalism and freedom of expression. Now, this is a correct snapshot of our reality,” Akin wrote in a recent article.
It actually highlights the sad fact that Milliyet’s editor, Derya Sazak, had defended censoring Cemal’s article by stating that he would not permit anyone to open a debate about the issue of media ownership and its damaging role in the media. This was exactly what Cemal had done.
The saddest part of Turkey’s media story is that almost every journalist jailed is a Kurd. Due to the nature of their struggle, most Kurdish publishers have engaged in political activism, falling victim to the problematic Anti-Terror Law. Turkish journalists employed by big media conglomerates feel deeply constrained in terms of the issues they want to cover. Due to complex business ties between the proprietors and the government, their critical watchdog role is now minimized at best.
Worst of all, again due to the “unholy alliance” of the media and Turkey's rulers, and the relationships of individual publishers with one another, coverage of corruption and investigative journalism have been virtually non-existent for the last two decades. (It is doubtful, for example, that anyone in the mainstream media would print material regarding offshore leaks, if something of news value about Turkish actors comes out.)
But, as with general dissent in Turkey, the tradition of good journalism is also far too strong to be defeated. It's no wonder that when some media sources lose credibility, and when their roles become irrelevant, people turn to other sources, both at home and abroad — like T24, HaberX and also Al-Monitor, which has Turkish content. Despite the Internet's vulnerable status (access to some 8,000 sites are banned in Turkey, including some key Kurdish news agencies), the rapid, easy and smart nature of the new media is attracting journalists.
When Turkish F-16 fighter jets bombed a group of Kurdish smugglers along the Turkish-Iraqi border in late 2011, killing 34 of them, strictly proprietor-controlled big media blocked the news for more than 17 hours. Within minutes of the tragedy, social media were buzzing. It showed misery at one end, but shone light on a great potential.
Amid a seemingly endless series of sackings and dismissals of columnists and fine reporters, Hasan Cemal’s choice can be seen as a ground-breaking act. If nothing else, an exciting experiment in journalism is now taking place online.
Yavuz Baydar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1979, he has been a radio reporter, news presenter, producer, TV host, foreign correspondent, debator and, in recent years, a news ombudsmen for the daily Sabah. His opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language daily Today's Zaman.