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 Estonian journalist Hille Hanso, based in Istanbul for seven years, working for various Estonian news outlets including radio broadcast and printed publications.
(Interview conducted on the 15th of February 2019)
ARTHUR DIDIER DEREN
Since you are based in Turkey, which topics do you mainly cover?
Besides journalism, I also work for two Estonian NGOs which support the Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. I’ve been working for them as an expert, so I have good knowledge of the refugee issue. I have also been following the Kurdish issue in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. I was mainly focused on the Syrian conflict as it obviously needed a closer focus. And on Turkey, I cover politics but I also cover social and cultural stories, music, religion, history, and people if I have time.
Many Kurds don’t trust secular Turkish journalists
Do foreign journalists in Turkey collaborate with each other? Do you also get help from local journalists?
I am not accredited. I never saw the necessity, as I didn’t come here as a journalist. Besides, Estonia is a small country, which doesn’t need daily news from Turkey. What my publications expect from me are analyses and opinion pieces. For that reason, I see myself as an outsider, so I am not daily in touch with the other foreign journalists. Turkish journalists are helpful to get some contacts, phone numbers, etc. In Turkey, it’s easy to be friend with people from very different groups of society. What I noticed is that for many liberal secular Turks, it’s hard to get in touch with Kurdish people, because they don’t trust them and don’t want to talk to them. But all these groups see me as someone neutral, so I can speak to all of them. Therefore, sometimes, I found myself giving quite a good number of contacts to Turkish friends and colleagues, for example in the southeast.
Can you count on the Turkish government to get information?
I have a very good relationship with the Turkish embassy in Estonia. So, if I need any help, I ask to the embassy, and they are very helpful. But as I said, I don’t need the quotes to form anyone. I don’t write daily news, I’m interested in the bigger picture. I don’t directly interview people in the streets, but I talk to academicians, and they are quite open.
Walking on a very thin line between being judged in Europe and Turkey
Since you started working in Turkey, did you notice any changes in the practice of journalism?
Yes, but it is a two-way street. As European newspapers are quite hostile towards Turkey, I found that my neutral coverage of the country was not welcomed by some media outlets in Estonia. According to them, I am not criticizing enough. But my job is not to criticize. Every development has either bad or good effect on society. When it comes to Turkey, if you want both sides, some people in Europe will say that you are partisan. For that reason, I had to let some works go. At the same time, when you are a bit critical here, you can get very angry feedbacks from Turkish people. So, between both narratives, you must walk on a very thin line. Both sides have gone so sensitive.
I saw so many journalists leaving this country with wrong conclusions
Do you think that most of the European news outlets expect their Turkey correspondents to strengthen its negative image?
I think that most of the news outlets are essentially click-based. So, if you have a scandal to sell, they will go for it. This really harms the neutral analysis. Unfortunately, that is the tendency all over the world. For example, take a correspondent sent here by his media outlet to cover some elections. First of all, this journalist will most probably already come here with a partial approach. Then, he won’t manage to find information in English from the government, as people in the government see foreign journalists as enemies to compromise them. Finally, he will end up talking to people who are more likely to support the opposition. So somehow, some foreign journalists get information which is one-sided. I think that people who are just sent here to cover elections, really have to get information and knowledge before coming to ask their questions. I saw so many journalists leaving this country with the wrong conclusions.
I see people limiting themselves and I feel sad
This thin line you said you must walk on, was it that thin when you first arrived?
No, it was way more open in the beginning. I witnessed a big change since I arrived. The people themselves are scared to speak about their own country, imagine how absurd this is. They should have the right to speak about anything. I see people limiting themselves and I feel sad about this because it doesn’t benefit the country in the long term. When I first came here, Turks were so proud of their country. Now, so many people are in shock, because they don’t know what their country is anymore. That pride transferred to some groups that don’t represent the whole country. Now, I can hear so many young people saying that they don’t see their future in this country.
Yes the opposition is vocal, but not in a constructive way
Do you think that people in the opposition are more open and willing to talk to foreign journalists?
They are, but in a wrong way. I think that everything has become so black and white here. The opposition doesn’t acknowledge anything good that this government has done since it’s in power. I don’t like a lot of things in this government, but they have done a lot of good things. Thanks to this government, the life of a lot of people has improved, and you can’t ignore this. So yes, the opposition is vocal, but not in a constructive way. It has become blaming in very harsh words, and it’s unfortunate. It’s not useful.
In Estonia, we can criticize the government without any risk
Could you compare being a journalist in Turkey with being a journalist in Estonia?
The Turkish TV production, because of the dimension of the country, is way more advanced than ours in Estonia. The films and shows they produce are of high quality. But when it comes to talk-shows, the topics are sadly limited. Sometimes, you can feel that people want to say some things, but they try to find the words to put them in a sugar coating. So, it’s the opposite of Estonia. In Estonia, we can talk about anything we want, we can criticize people in the government without taking any risks, but the technical side is basic. Money is always limited.
What is your opinion about the Turkish press?
I read Sabah and the other pro-government newspapers. I also read the opposition leading ones. On TV, most of the channels just show the same thing. Then, there are lots of stuff on the internet. In Europe, people like to say that Turkey has become totalitarian. But on the internet, you can find a very wide range of opinions, actually. You just need to know where to find them. If you follow some public figures, academicians, social media, you can find some different and interesting opinions. TRT is what it is, but I was quite surprised by the quality of TRT World, which gives rather neutral coverage on some issues and gets some criticism of Turkey. This has been a pleasant surprise.
Most of the traditional Turkish newspapers do ‘yellow journalism’
Do you see a difference between the content of the Turkish independent media outlets and the content of the traditional opposition newspapers?
Most of the traditional Turkish newspapers do ‘yellow journalism’. If you look a bit further, you can find some deeper reporting. So, there is a difference. But open reporting has become harder, it punishes you.
Do you read the independent news outlets with the same approach with which you read the other opposition newspapers? Would you consider them as more reliable?
In my eyes, these independent news outlets have a good image. I know some people working in these, and I can say that they are reliable. They are pro-Turkey, and not partisan, so I wish they will be able to write about anything they think of and an important issue. As I said in the beginning, everything is taken so personally in this country. People are sensitive regarding criticism. I hope that these new media outlets will have the possibility to develop and write about everything.