ARTHUR DIDIER DEREN
It has become commonplace, within the foreign media, to declare Turkish journalism hopeless, and to limit their analysis to flashy headlines underlining the number of journalists who were arrested. If the situation of journalists in Turkey is indeed to be denounced, pontificating from afar isn’t useful to fully understand it. What is the opinion of those who work on the ground?
We interviewed foreign journalists based in Istanbul working for big newspapers or as freelancers to ask them about their experience in Turkey, and to get their view on Turkish media.
Our interview series continues with a freelancer American journalist Shawn Carrié who has been based in Istanbul for three years. He has worked for international news outlets like The Guardian, The Intercept and Newsweek.
(Interview conducted on the 2nd of February)
Since you are based in Turkey, which topics do you mainly cover?
I focus on human rights, conflict, politics and a little bit on culture, sometimes. I’m a features’ writer, so I don’t do news, only when something major is happening. When Jamal Khashoggi case happened here, I didn’t want to write on that but then I got an assignment to write about it. Generally, I focus on investigations and long term stories.
You can do things local journalists can not
Do you think that reporting in Turkey is difficult?
There are two issues. First, there is a political issue, which we can put on one side. The other issue is problems which are normal to the job of a foreign correspondent, such as the language barrier, the fact that it’s a different culture and that you don’t know people here, political system is foreign to you, how does the legal system work, you are in a different country with a different language. I’ve always thought this is the first challenge. On the other hand, there is a political situation which we all know about. I’ve always found that there is a certain advantage and protection of being a foreigner. You can do things local journalists can not. The political situation has started to affect us and our colleagues. This is a whole separate issue. But as a foreign journalist, you have some kind of protection. You can call or mail a government official, and they kind of want to talk to you.
Controversial stories are indeed easier to sell
They want to speak to us because we are giving them a platform. We can always say “Look, I don’t have to talk to you. I could just talk to some activist. But I’m trying to do my job in a proper and rigorous way, not just doing the easy thing and talk to an activist or an opposition spokesperson.” My opinion on this is that it is really easy to write a story which is dramatic and sexy. It is very easy to criticize the government and to talk only to people who are critical. These stories need to be done of course. My personal feeling is that is we have a very specific role, as a foreign correspondent. Our job is writing the news and the truth, and where things need to be criticized, we need to criticize. But our job is not necessarily to criticize. As a foreign correspondent, our job is to translate this society to the readers back home. I am an idealist in this profession and reality may not always inline with idealism. Because editors want you to do stories which are dramatic, controversial and usually the stories that sell are the dramatic ones like “Look at what Erdogan said…” etc.
It’s not my culture, country. So it’s not my job to take a side in some social polarization here
I consider myself a mainstream media and mainstream journalist. I am a centrist. It’s not my culture, country. So it’s not my job to take a side in some social polarization here. My job is to communicate that to the world. I’m not in the illusion that journalists are pure objective observers, I have my opinions for sure. American people don’t speak to Turkish people, so if they only read headlines, the situation is dark. My job is not just to give information but to give people insight about Turkey. America, the UK, France is polarized, Europe is polarized. When people read something, I want them to think they all deal with similar issues. It is a struggle not just to get people to read but to convince editors to allow people to read, to accept and publish it. You have to convince your boss, and he should convince someone else. But you have to believe yourself.
Turkish government officials really don’t understand how the media works
Our job is not a political one, it is public service
You are the only journalist I interviewed who claims that the government is willing to talk to foreign journalists. What is your own experience with them?
The problem with the Turkish government is they don’t understand the media, they really don’t understand how the media works, and they don’t trust foreign journalists. My personal view is that we have to put them in conversation with people they are not speaking to, they refuse to speak to, and it starts with us. They are so suspicious, they are so scared. They are probably scared for their jobs, they might say something wrong. Sometimes, you interview someone, they say you “OK, I’ll do the interview but give me two or three days I need to get some information”. Actually, they need to get the talking points from someone. They need to make sure that they stick to the script. Sometimes they are just giving you very scripted answers and it’s not their opinion. So you have to push them and you have to put them in conversation. They won’t acknowledge when something is going on, of course, it is not in their political interest. But our job is not a political one, it is a public service. It is a service to public knowledge. Anytime you interview someone, you have to gain their trust – even on a basic level. It is the same when a technology entrepreneur wants good PR for their new app. It is the same with government. You have to approach them in a way that they feel comfortable, understand your intention and are willing to speak to you. Now you have to do that at the same time as balancing – getting the information that you need from them. So you have to use sugar and then if you are going to ask them about things they won’t feel comfortable, it is an equal responsibility of theirs, they have to answer, and they should be accountable to the public. This is the foundation of our mission as a journalist. They have to be accountable. If they don’t speak to Turkish journalists, sometimes we have to use our privilege as foreigners, but approaching people is a very sensitive thing. You have to balance things.
They don’t understand refusing to speak doesn’t look good
So according to you, the Turkish government is not especially more closed than any government in any other country?
Everyone has their own interests. If you interview someone run for mayor, they want good PR. But with social media, they started to think they don’t need us anymore. It is a problem. It is true that a lot of times, we will be refused in Turkey too, cause official thinks that they don’t have any interest. What we can do about it is just, write that the official refused to speak to us. My professional opinion is that it should be based on respect. We have a job to do, and they have a job to do. It’s a game. I’m not personally offended at them (the government officials). So I deal with them on this level. I think that Turkish people have this trust and respect for foreigners in a way, and they have this respect for foreign media on a personal and cultural level. You can see, the government doesn’t want to talk to foreign journalists, and they deal with us in a very ineffective way. I think that there are some who are aware of this and I think that is slowly starting to change. The administration is going under a lot of reconstruction. It is a huge bureaucracy and it’s ineffective. But I think they are aware that the way that they communicate with us is ineffective. And they are very slowly taking some steps like just this year they established this communication center – which is such a lovely name. They are starting to bring some English-speaking spokespersons, so, they are making some efforts on the surface. Compared with other countries, let’s say the obvious thing: There is not a culture that they have a responsibility to speak to journalists like there is in Europe or America. In Europe or America there is a kind of understanding that like if you refuse to speak to a journalist, that is embarrassing for you. They don’t have this sense. If someone is accused of something they say “No comment”. They understand that this makes them look bad, and they are thinking like “I look bad to someone in France or America” – like “Tell them not to vote for me the next time”. I mean they don’t care. It doesn’t affect them. They don’t have any reason to feel guilty about this. They are thinking about their own job, their own longevity.
Do you really think that the Turkish government doesn’t understand how the media works?
I think they don’t understand the way our media works. They are not even very good at public relations. They don’t understand this refusing to speak doesn’t look good. You can see it in the Turkish media. The way that they deal with things is by just not talking about them. This is the way that they deal with. This is a cultural issue. It’s a taboo to speak about violence against women, Armenian genocide. Culturally, they don’t speak about it in the media either. This comes from culture. When something is not favourable, they just put it on the side. This is how Turkish culture is.
As a journalist, if you are very confrontational, they just close the door
Was it different in the other countries you covered, such as Irak and Syria?
They deal with it differently. In Iraq, if you are a foreigner they are very welcoming to you. They have actually a more effective way to control – it’s a much more unequal society. So, anybody who is in the government or all the people who you want to interview, they will take very good care of you. They will show you – if they are a rich businessman or a corrupt politician, they will show you orphanage that they donated money to. They will make you comfortable, and they will take you to dinner and say “Yes I am such a good guy, I’m such a philanthropist”. So they know how to charm you in that way. Here, they don’t quite do this so much (here). But this suspicion and resentment of the foreign media are all following the politics. Because it is all coming from the guy on top as we hear statements like “The foreigners, they are putting the economic warfare on us”. So it all comes down to how people view us. But this is the landscape that we deal with. That’s why my approach has to be the opposite. You won’t really find success if you are coming in and you are exactly as they expect, and be very confrontational, they just close the door.
It takes weeks to get a response, and they are
Have you observed any changes since you arrived?
My personal experience is I am now more in touch with the government but it is as I try more. I think it is now less consolidated in the government after many changes because after the way they have moved things around, now you don’t know who is responsible for what. You know it used to be – I don’t know if it is a structural change but – the issue that we often face is like “Who is there responsible for this? He is the one. But no, he is gone and there is a new person.” If you want to interview someone in the environment ministry, the person who was there for 15 years and knows the issue, is not there anymore. This new guy is there for two weeks. The government is shifting around and people are moving across positions. So it is hard to find the person who is responsible. Even if they want to give an answer, it will take weeks just to take a response.
This is how it is seen from the outside. Government is consolidating, getting more opaque and less transparent and I see it on a more detailed level and from what I see is they are trying to move things around, but they are also as confused as we are. For example, I have been trying to reach to a prosecutor since December. I mailed him in December, reminded my mail in January and mailed again afterwards. They said OK to my request for a meeting. Then he was busy again. People told that I was not going to get that interview. And such a process is frustrating. Finally, I did convince him for an interview, and he talked to me. But I still have no interview as he refused to give comment.
Apart from politicians, are people in general willing to talk to you?
Average people are very distrustful of journalists. It is the same in Syria too. When you speak to a Turkish person and tell them that you are a journalist, what comes into their mind? Are they thinking of television? Are they thinking of tabloid? It feels really frustrating because I feel I have to say “I am a journalist but don’t be scared. Not the kind that you are thinking.” Sometimes I feel like people when I say I am a journalist, it means that I am trying to take their picture and put it on the front page of the newspaper and make them something sensational because this is the media in Turkey. Turn on the TV and look at some shitty channel and shows that are on 7-8 pm or anytime. The way that they do the news here is like – they would just have news about like some guys beat his girlfriend, or someone murdered his girlfriend. They are putting the big picture there, it is so sensational, and we call it ‘yellow journalism’. So, people end up having this image of journalism. Besides, there is also what they think about foreigners. You know, you are dealing with a lot of stereotypes. You are a foreigner, you are a journalist. And people have a strong idea about both of these things. It comes from politics because if they listen to the news, they hear “Foreign journalist this and that.” So you have to gain their trust. It is not ethical to trick someone into speaking with you and take information in a way that’s not honest. Even if it feels frustrating, and we can complain too – when we get together over a beer we just complain as a therapy session – this is part of our responsibility. It’s part of our job.
What is your opinion about the Turkish press?
I pay attention to them, I look at the headlines and I see what they are. And when I go to the restaurant I see Turkish TV. It got definitely worse since I arrived. When I came here, there was a war going on. At that time, it was the height of polarization. It is now a calmer period. When there is a war going on, everyone is tense, both sides are shouting at their most loud. But if you just look at the facts on how many media have been shut, or been bought by someone else, it’s obvious to see the degradation by the numbers. But what I look at is there is a cultural change. It is not the state-owned newspapers or news outlets which are the angriest and polarized, it is actually the private ones. They are more pro-government than government media. Because they are free to be wild dogs. If you watch A Haber, Show Haber, Yeni Şafak all these… But there is a big change. Hurriyet used to be an opposition newspaper, now it looks exactly the same, this is exactly what they want. Paper looks the same unless you pay attention to the news as someone else bought it. And Hurriyet is the largest newspaper in Turkey. There is such a concentration in the media, it is possible to see the same headlines in several newspapers.
Are you following the Turkish independent media outlets?
I am following them. There are independent news outlets who keep good ethics while doing journalism, and there are some who don’t. There are some partisan independent media too, like Evrensel. Is it really If you take Evrensel, for example. Is it really independent? It is tied to a political party, even though it is a small party. Are they doing their stories for journalism or for political reasons?
Do you see a difference between this newspaper, for example, and the online independent media that developed more recently?
I am an old-school journalist, I am writing for a newspaper that was established a long time ago. The new media don’t have a political foundation. Even though Diken is not tied to a party, and is not even an opposition newspaper, claiming you are independent is a political statement. And people know where it tends to, we know who they are and who they aren’t. I am making a distinction between these and what is more like an activist press, like the Kurdish activist press, for example. They are more about politics than selling newspapers.
What did the other journalists tell you about these online independent media?
Mainly that they are important, that such initiatives are necessary, and that they do great reporting, although they sometimes lack rigour in checking facts. However, they were generally preoccupied with their ability to subsist financially…
If you want my opinion, these outlets should start to do the subscribers model. They are in a position to do so. That keeps newspapers independent.