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 Iraqi journalist Hussein Assad working for a European news outlet. Assad is based in Istanbul since June 2014. This interview was conducted on the 14th of February.
ARTHUR DIDIER DEREN
Since you are based in Turkey, what topics do you mainly cover?
I cover mainly politics, economy and security. I also cover the conflict in Syria, Turkey’s military operations there, and Turkey’s foreign policy.
Do foreign journalists in Turkey collaborate with each other? Do you ever get help from local journalists?
Yes, we have a WhatsApp group with both foreign and Turkish journalists. I am also in some other chat groups with Arab colleagues. When I need something, I just ask directly on these groups. In general, people are helpful. I have had a lot of help from Turkish journalists when I was covering the operation Olive Branch at the Syrian border. I have been given a lot of contacts by colleagues.
Can you count on the Turkish government to get information?
I am not in touch with the Turkish government directly, but there are some sources inside the government with whom I am in touch. They give me some information, confirmation for some news. But it’s not easy. Sometimes, you send them requests to cover some specific topics. Your requests are never answered promptly. They make you wait for two or three weeks just to refuse them in the end. This happened to me once, and it was for a story that was rather ‘positive’ for the government. Another time, they had accepted another request for a big story. So we travelled from Istanbul to the south-east, where we met people in specific positions. After arriving there, authorities asked us questions on what we were doing here and they told us with a last minute notice that we weren’t allowed to work there. They had received a call from Ankara about our presence there. Apparently, in the end, we weren’t permitted to cover this story anymore, so we had to come back. Most of the time, they are not helpful. If I want to do interviews with people from the opposition parties, it’s much easier. I can go directly to the headquarters of these parties and get interviews, without any appointments. But for the AKP, it’s much more difficult, they never answer the phone, they don’t help. I tried many times, and I failed most of the time.
Apart from politicians, are people in general willing to talk to you?
When I started working here in 2014, it was really easy. It got harder gradually. You can feel the change if you been working here for a long time. It has become difficult to talk to people, even in the streets. They became more cautious to talk to journalists, especially to foreign ones, and I would say especially to European ones. They think that European journalists are working against Turkey’s interest, that their only objective is to picture a bad image for their country. It also depends on where you are. Even within Istanbul. If you go to Fatih, for example, it’s difficult to get people to talk to you. In Besiktas, it’s easier, because they feel like they can talk. In general, people think that foreign journalist want to use them against the government.
Did you too become more cautious?
Yes, and for many reasons. First for myself. I don’t want to make mistakes and write something which is not true. This would cause trouble for my relations with the government. And that would undermine my situation in Turkey and harm my future as a journalist if I am not careful. So you have to give yourself a framework, there has to be some limits. But within this framework, I think I have enough freedom to do my job. I must also say that being Arab and writing in Arabic makes my situation easier than European journalists as people in Turkey, even the government, feel that you are closer to them, culturally and religiously speaking. People feel more confident with me than they do with European journalists. I can feel it in my everyday life.
Were you ever directly interrupted by the police or the army while reporting?
Yes, it happened twice during the Olive Branch operation. The second time happened in Syria. We were filming, and we were asked to leave by the Turkish army. Sometimes, you have clearance to go to certain areas, and then, once you are there, they decide they don’t want you to be there anymore, and they force you to leave. But I must say that they were never used violence against us. They were doing it for ‘our protection’ even though you know that their reason is not your protection. They just don’t want you to be around and to film them.
Could you compare being a journalist in Turkey with being a journalist in other countries you already worked?
I used to work in Iraq, so I was not surprised when I first arrived here, because I come from a country with no press freedom at all. In Iraq, you can lose your life for having written the wrong story. Here, they are less violent, at least to foreign journalists. In 2014, my first mission was to cover the clashes between ISIS and the Kurdish forces in Kobane. I didn’t have my press card yet back then. I went there and I could do the job freely. No one even asked me about my ID. Of course, it became much harder afterwards. Now you have much more controls. But even now, you can’t compare with the situation of journalism in Iraq. However, if the situations here is better, that doesn’t mean it is good.
What is your opinion about the Turkish press?
I am reading several newspapers, such as Cumhuriyet, Sabah, Haber Turk and sometimes Yeni Safak. I also watch TV. I don’t think the content of these newspapers changed since I arrived. At least, the main lines of these newspapers didn’t change. CNN Turk changed, because it was bought recently by Demiroren Group. This is the only significant change I experienced. But I think it was done in a smart and subtle way.
Do you see a difference between the content of the Turkish independent media outlets and the content of the traditional opposition newspapers?
I can see a big difference between them, in the way articles are written, but also in the topics they deal with. I think these independent outlets try to give the naked truth.
Do they manage to do so, according to you?
Sometimes. At least they try, and I appreciate that.
Would you consider these news outlets, or one them, as reliable sources of information?
I prefer to read their opinion articles rather than reading the news in these media outlets, so I couldn’t really answer.
What is your approach of the traditional newspapers, then?
For example, during the Khashoggi case, the government was directly transmitting information to Sabah and Yeni Safak, so I used them as a source. I know that when the government wants to say something, it will say it through these pro-government newspapers. These newspapers won’t say something unapproved by the government, so they are an interesting source of information.