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 foreign journalist who wishes to remain anonymous and works in Turkey for a western newspaper.
(Interview conducted on the 9th of February 2019)
Do foreign journalists in Turkey collaborate with each other? Do you also get help from local journalists?
I don’t really collaborate with other foreign journalists. I have spoken to Turkish journalists to write a piece on journalism in Turkey, and they also gave me information on topics they covered before. I also got some exclusive information from Turkish colleagues during the Khashoggi case.
Can you count on the Turkish government to get information?
When I write about an issue concerning the Turkish government, I try to reach them directly to get their perspective on the topic. But everything is becoming more and more centralized in Turkey, so it’s getting more and more difficult to reach someone from a random government agency to comment on an issue. I must rely on the government’s official and semi-regular briefings.
Access to political parties isn’t that difficult
Do you think it’s easier to talk to the opposition parties when compared to the ruling party?
No, the government is hard to reach, but all political parties are pretty easy to speak to, including the AKP. Over the last year, I have spoken to people from the AKP a few times, although not as intensively as I did in 2017. I could do the same with people from the HDP or the IYI party. During the elections, it was quite easy to interview people from political parties or visit them. Access to political parties isn’t very difficult.
People are still relatively open and would say quite a lot
Apart from politicians, are people in general willing to talk to you?
If compared with the other countries from the region where I worked, it is relatively easy to get people to talk to you in Turkey. Actually, people would say quite a lot here. Of course, it is different when you want to get people’s opinions on a specific crisis going on or on the Turkish Government’s confrontation with a country. Often, you will find that people don’t want to contradict what the Government is saying. But this is not universally true. I have never gone out to do interviews and gotten a uniform opinion from different people. I have always found contrary points of view. In that way, people are still relatively open.
Turkey has a lot in common with other authoritarian countries
Could you compare being a journalist in Turkey with being a journalist in countries where you already worked?
Turkey obviously has a lot in common with other authoritarian countries where I worked. Here, messages are highly centralized. When you want to dig into the activities of a government agency, into issues of corruption or security services, there are challenges of accountability. It’s difficult to get information, the same way as it is in other authoritarian countries I have already worked in.
Things have worsened with time, especially for the Kurdish issue
But compared to the average people of these countries, it’s way easier to get Turkish people to talk to you about their country. Like in other countries, the government has extremely sensitive topics. Reporting on these topics is complicated. And those things seem to have worsened with time, especially for the Kurdish issue, both in Turkey and Syria.
I am more cautious in the way I communicate with sources, especially dissidents
Since you started working in Turkey, did you notice any changes in the practice of journalism?
The first thing that changed – from what I and people I know have experienced – is the fact that we became more mindful of our personal and electronic security. There is a growing feeling that people are watching very closely the things you say, the way you communicate with people, etc. Therefore, I became more careful on the social media. But most importantly, I became much more careful in the way I communicate with sources, and in the way I use them, especially when they are dissidents. This doesn’t apply only to Turkey but to the region as well. However, in terms of how I approach my stories and how I write them, I don’t think that it changed significantly.
Turkish journalism really seems to be under siege
What is your opinion on the Turkish press?
The space for independent media has significantly narrowed. There are less and less independent commentaries. I could experience that within two years only. There are still a lot of great journalists who are doing important work but Turkish journalism really seems to be under siege.
Do you follow Turkish independent media outlets?
I met some of the people involved in some of these initiatives, and these outlets are one of the bright spots. We had assumed early on that they were going to face real troubles. It’s good to see that they survive. I think that there are also some pro-government news outlets that try to do independent work.
Independent news outlets are my most important sources. Of course, I try to get a sense of what mainstream pro-government or opposition news outlets are saying. But in terms of figuring out what else is going on, mainly regarding government prosecutions, etc, these independent outlets are my main sources of information.
The big question that is going forward is ‘accountability’
Online news outlets are way more independent and less partisan
Do you see a difference between the content of the Turkish independent media outlets and the content of the traditional opposition newspapers?
I do think there is a difference in their work. Cumhuriyet, until recently, had this pro-opposition party (CHP) stand. Over the last years, it became more independent and less in line with the party, although it’s definitely about opposition to the president and to the AKP. But the online outlets are way more independent and less partisan, according to me.
Less and less information is coming from the mainstream outlets
Do you see a difference in their content?
There is the question of ownership of the big outlets. How much more control the government will exert over the press? The online outlets have been able to escape the restrictions from the government. The big question that is going forward is ‘accountability’. When a building collapses, who is going to be able to talk about it, and who is going to have to censor themselves because the government doesn’t want it out there. Will it only be the online outlets that will get somebody to the scene and feel sort of brave enough to put that information out there? Part of what helps the online outlets is that in some cases, they can do things more quickly than anybody else. They don’t have to wait for some editorial control. My twitter feed is filled with the stuff that they are pulling out. Obviously, with the controls of the government, it’s becoming harder and harder to confirm good information. This is one of the challenges. I don’t think we know exactly where this ends up, but the trend, so far, has been that less and less information is coming from the mainstream outlets.