ANKARA, Turkey — Sendika.org is a popular news site in Turkey, carrying news that the mainstream media often shun, wary of angering the government. However, due to a series of government-imposed bans, a website with this name no longer exists online. Readers gifted with a good memory are now going to the sendika62.org address, but it, too, may change soon.
The website’s name-changing saga began in 2015, when the now-defunct Telecommunication and Communication Authority (TIB), a body attached to the prime minister’s office, issued its first order blocking access to the site. This led to the inauguration of sendika1.org, but it didn't survive for long. Since then, the site has been gagged and revived 61 times, as the number in its current address suggests. Launched in late August, sendika62.org’s “longevity” has surprised the staff. “We have not been shut down for three weeks. This is truly intriguing,” the site’s editor-in-chief, Ali Ergin Demirhan, told Al-Monitor Sept. 17.
According to Demirhan, the frequency of the gags depends on daily political developments in the country. “We are being shut down more often when street movements are on the rise,” he said. In the two weeks leading to the April 16 referendum, the site was banned literally every day, reopening with a new name the next morning.
Lately, Demirhan has noticed a new trend in the timings. “One day, there was again an order to block access to the site, but nothing important had happened that day in Turkey. The next day, however, there was a large-scale [police] operation against Kurdish politicians. So, we are being shut down not only for our coverage of important developments but also ahead of such developments,” he said.
Sendika.org is not alone in this ordeal. The Dicle News Agency (DIHA), which focuses on the Kurdish issue and human rights violations, is another media outlet that stands out among dozens of counterparts hit by censorship. The authorities have gagged the agency’s websites no less than 48 times, forcing it to use different extensions such as diha.net or diha.com. In October, DIHA itself was banned as the government cracked down on oppositional quarters in the wake of the botched coup attempt. It was reborn as DIHABER, but it survived only until a fresh ban in August, with its websites gagged 16 times in the meantime.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, the agency’s Ankara representative, Kenan Kirkaya, explained how the process is wearing down the critical media. “We can launch a new agency tomorrow, but it’s not as easy as it seems. Each time we are closed down, our technical equipment is confiscated and we lose our institutional identity. Each time you need to set up a new company, register it as a taxpayer and buy new equipment,” he said. “The biggest problem, however, is that when we are closed down institutionally, we have our press cards canceled as well. So, you cannot cover events until a new agency is launched. It’s so onerous in every respect. In short, the state is not letting us work.”
Ironically, TIB itself was shut down after the failed coup attempt on grounds that followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, the accused mastermind of the putsch, had taken hold of the institution and used it for illegal activities such as wiretapping government officials. According to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, TIB was a place where “all sorts of dirty things” had transpired. Yet the government seemed to be fine with the TIB’s censorship of critical media, for the body that was created in its place — the Information Technologies and Communication Authority (BTK) — sustained the clampdown.
Under the law, the BTK is required to first send warnings to websites before ordering bans. Yet the representatives of the news sites mentioned above say they have received no such notices to date. Moreover, the orders contain no explanation on what grounds the websites are blocked. “We’ve filed lawsuits against all 61 bans but nothing has come out so far,” Demirhan said.
Demirhan, meanwhile, faces a number of trials for his journalistic activities, atop a suspended 15-month sentence for “spreading terrorist propaganda” over news reports on clashes and unrest in the mainly Kurdish southeast.
Kirkaya, for his part, has been to prison three times throughout his career, serving a total of five years. He, too, remains on trial in a fresh case. Referring to the last hearing in his trial, Kirkaya recounted a telling exchange with the judge. “After I spoke about the bans and the troubles we’ve been through, the judge asked, ‘Then why don’t you go and work in another agency?’ This is precisely what they are trying to do. The state … wants to decide where we should work.”
Kirkaya said he and his colleagues were determined to relaunch the agency anew. “I’m not going to be a refugee [in another country], and I’m not going to work in another agency,” he said. “We, journalists, are responsible for bringing the news to the reader no matter whether our organizations are closed down or not.”
Demirhan is equally determined to carry on, noting that sendika63.org is ready to go if need be. “We’ll keep reopening the site no matter how many times they ban it,” he said, stressing that the alternative media in Turkey had come of age, boosted by many experienced editors and reporters.
Sendika.org is now seeking recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records as the website that has seen the biggest number of closures and reopenings. Demirhan said the site had submitted its application and was now awaiting a response.
Al-Monitor asked Demirhan what definition he would use to describe sendika.org. “Resistance media,” he said confidently. In a country where the suppression of press freedom continues unabated, with 161 journalists in jail and scores of newspapers, TV channels and websites banned, this description for the media that refuse to yield sounds spot on.