Censorship, layoffs, and a digital exodus: Observations on journalism in Turkey

In this file photo, journalists are seen in a demonstration in support of free speech organized by Turkey's Journalists' Union in Istanbul. The banner reads #JournalismIsNotACrime in Turkish. Photo credit: Evrensel

While the field of journalism is considered to be one of the most international and globally connected professional areas today, the experiences of journalists can be vastly different from country to country. Factors such as political tension and the influence of the government, particularly in regards to freedom of speech and press, as well as the state of the conventional media in that country have made being a journalist far more dangerous and difficult in some countries as opposed to others. Turkey is among the countries where journalists have been forced to face an increasing number of obstacles as time progresses.  However, this means that the role of reliable journalists, and the need for trustworthy sources of media, has only become more important and more honorable. 

One of the biggest challenges facing journalists working in mainstream media in Turkey, which is largely controlled by the government, is the lack of stability or job security. Journalist Ipek Yezdani was among the 45 journalists working for Hürriyet newspaper, Turkey’s most prominent newspaper at the time, who were fired without warning in 2019 without the consent or knowledge of the Editor-in-Chief. Turkey’s Journalists’ Union (TGS) confirmed then that many of these journalists were members of the TGS, and that at the time the union was about to begin the process of being officially recognized, a step before negotiating a collective agreement with the management. 

Yezdani, who had been a member of the TGS for years at the time, said that as soon as Hürriyet was sold out to a new owner she and several of her colleagues “didn’t feel safe.” “I knew that I was going to be fired because of political reasons at some point,” she recalled in a Zoom call this July. “I just didn’t know when.”

Not only were the journalists fired without warning, but Yezdani said that the manner in which they were laid off was “humiliating,” as legal notices were sent to their homes but the journalists were given no prior warning from the Human Resources department. Yezdani remembers that she was at a news gathering meeting at the office of Hürriyet when she received a call from her mother, who had received in the post the notice saying Yezdani had been laid off. Furthermore, the corporation refused to pay the legal compensation fee of the journalists, forcing Yezdani and several of her colleagues to take the issue up in court. 

Because of treatment like this, for Yezdani, the switch to not working in mainstream media has largely turned out to be a positive change. “Right now I think the best thing about working as a freelance journalist and not being related to mainstream media is that their reputation is very bad,” she said. “So if I had worked for mainstream media right now, yes I would have my salary periodically but a lot of people around me, including our relatives, would judge me a lot. I think reputation-wise, it’s not good to be in the mainstream media right now.”

Independent journalists’ digital transition

Yezdani is certainly not the only Turkish journalist who had to make the switch from conventional media to being an independent journalist due to political tension. Journalist Nevsin Mengu began her career working for conventional media and anchored CNN Turk 6 pm News for seven years before being fired due to political pressure over her news commentary. She now runs one of the largest and most successful YouTube news channels in the country and says she would “never want to work for a TV channel ever again.” 

“Comparing it to YouTube, TV channels are huge and slow and restrictive,” she said. “It doesn’t give you the space to be creative… On YouTube I’m not after perfection, I’m after truth.”

Recognizing that political tension is a prominent factor in the type of content a news organization produces, particularly in Turkey, Mengu noted that in non-democratic countries, the transition away from conventional forms of media is often aided by a growing public distrust in the government. “In countries like Turkey it [the switch to new media] is transitioning faster… because we have a more totalitarian government and for totalitarian governments it’s easier to censor conventional media,” she explained. “In Turkey we have this body called the High Commission of Radio and TV Stations. They basically monitor every TV channel… this means if they see something harmful they can find this TV channel and give penalties, or they might even stop the broadcast. It’s harder to do that on social media.”

Yezdani noted that not only is there a huge amount of censorship from the government in Turkey, but in order to get their work published while working for the mainstream media journalists also need to apply a certain amount of self-censorship. “You know what is going to be published and what is not going to be published because after a while… you learn what will disturb the government and what will not disturb them,” she said. “So of course, because of the political atmosphere in Turkey and because of the media crackdown and all the pressure and everything else there’s a huge amount of self-censorship.”

‘Journalism needs to focus on public trust’

Aidan White, founder of the Ethical Journalism Network, agreed that one of the most prominent causes of the rise of misinformation and distrust in the media in Turkey stems from the government. “Turkey is one country where political authoritarianism, accompanied by a lack of respect for independent journalism, has led to a widespread information crisis,” he said. “Public trust in media has been eroded by the decline of traditional media, caused largely by the growth of an internet business model driven by clicks and attention-seeking rather than reliability and public interest.”

In 2011 White founded the Ethical Journalism Network, which has now expanded and evolved to include over 70 groups of journalists, editors, and press owners. White cites the inspiration for creating the Ethical Journalism Network as the 25 years he served as General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, during which he witnessed, “…  a serious decline in media standards and the information revolution, which revolutionised public and private communications, but also opened the door to the circulation of more propaganda, disinformation and abusive information.”

“Journalism needs to focus on public trust at a time when people feel they cannot trust any information in the public space. The role of ethics, in both production of media content and in media behaviour, is an essential part of any strategy for building trust,” he said. “The growth of hate-speech and the ease with which rumours and false information can be spread requires a broad movement, involving journalists but also everyone in public life as well as information users, in order to reclaim the public information space for responsible communication.”

Indeed, the influence of the government over conventional media in Turkey and the disconnect between the mainstream media and the general public has certainly made the field of journalism a treacherous one, which is why many young people in Turkey have become hesitant to pursue careers in news media. Nisa Demirtas, a senior year student at Middle East Technical University from Ankara, says that she does consider pursuing journalism in the future but is worried about the “political polarization” Turkish journalists face. “I think this situation puts a lot of pressure on journalists and forces them to pick a side. This polarization puts journalists in a vulnerable position,” she said. “They are often threatened through social media and some of them even get physically attacked. This is definitely a big concern for me.” 

Because of these types of dangers facing journalists in Turkey, Mr. White is among those who believe that the work of journalists and groups pursuing press rights are only becoming more important. “In Turkey, despite the taming of news media (it is now under strong governmental influence) there are still independent groups striving for press rights – the press council, the journalist’s syndicate, and there is even a group bringing them altogether – the Coalition for Ethical Journalism in Turkey,” he said. “These groups are important because they will play a role when the political climate changes, as it will.”

Keep reading: Belarus journalists, who once ‘looked to Turkey in fear,’ face the same fate

Olivia Flaherty-Lovy

Olivia Flaherty-Lovy is from Connecticut, USA, and is a junior in the Dual BA Program between Columbia University and Trinity College Dublin. She recently completed her two years at Trinity, where she studied English Literature and served as the Features Editor of Trinity News, the oldest student publication in Ireland. Previously, she was an Editorial Intern for The NewCanaanite, a local news site, and is hoping to continue working in journalism in the future. In the summer of 2021, Olivia participated in Journo's New Horizons program, an internship for international students organized in partnership with Columbia Global Centers | Istanbul. The program aims to equip students from various academic fields with journalistic knowledge and skills.

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