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 Kiran Nazish, a Pakistani journalist working for foreign press including news outlets like The New York Times and Al Jazeera. Nazish is also the founder of The Coalition for Women in Journalism, a non-profit organization supporting women journalists in the media ecosystem with mentorship.
(Interview conducted on the 15th of February 2019)
Since you are based in Turkey, which topics do you mainly cover?
I have been mostly looking at the Kurdish issue in the south-east, the Syrian conflict and the refugees. Since the coup attempt happened, I also wrote about the purges and human rights.
Did you choose to come to work in Turkey or were you appointed here?
The first time I came, I was sent by Al Jazeera to cover the rise of ISIS in Syria. At that time, everything was different. First, the topic was Syria, but things were easier for journalists, mainly on the cooperation with the Turkish government.
Can you count on the Turkish government to get information?
Yes, although I know that it’s not easy for everybody. I wouldn’t say that it’s easier for me, but I have access to some people in the government who I know wouldn’t necessarily talk to other foreign journalists. Sometimes, it just depends on luck. It’s also based on who you are. Even in a same newspaper, in The New York Times, for example, some correspondents will have good relations with the government while others won’t.
Apart from politicians, are people in general willing to talk to you?
I think being a woman really matters. People are more willing to talk to women. I think from a social point of view, people trust women more. But for every story, the crowd is different. In Turkey, there is a sharp polarization, and because of that people tend to have very strong believes and to control their answers. They will profile you all the time. If you are a woman, you will get a different answer than if you are a man. I am Pakistani but even though I haven’t lived in Pakistan for a long while, I will use my Pakistani identity in the streets, because people don’t like western powers. I don’t want to make my sources feel uncomfortable, and to do so, I must use different parts of my identity. You must gain the trust of the people you want to interview. In the streets, it’s easy because your time is limited, and it’s a one to one conversation. But if you want to meet with people who have been in prison, or who are under any kind of threat, getting them to talk to you and gaining their trust is a hard and long-term investment.
Do you think there foreign journalists are treated according to their country?
Yes, I think this is an important factor. I think that where you come from really matters. I got some of my contacts here through the contacts I have in the Pakistani government, which has some contacts with the Turkish government. It helped me a lot.
Coup was very easy to cover until the purges started
Since you started working in Turkey, did you notice any changes in the practice of journalism?
It also depends on the stories. When I was covering the border with Syria, it was much easier because the story was about Syria, ISIS and terrorism. So, people from the government were cooperating, and I could get quotes from them. I could interview a lot of people. I also had a better security, and the police were very cooperative. But when I had to talk about the Kurdish issue, then it got more difficult. I couldn’t move around properly. I had to have security all the time. People refused to meet me in public. We had to interview people, including politicians, in secret. Kurdish politicians were helping us, because it was their story, but Turkish ones weren’t giving any response. Reporting on this issue made things even more difficult for me afterwards. Then, the coup attempt happened. It was interesting because everybody was on the same side, meaning against the coup. That story became very easy to do, at least for a couple of months. But when the purges started later on, it became again difficult to interview people. A lot of people were imprisoned, and myself, as a journalist, had to be very careful with my sources. I didn’t want to be seen with people that could be associated to the Gülenist movement. So, there was this phenomenon of self-censorship, to avoid any troubles. In Turkey, things have fluctuated a lot over the years.
I got arrested in USA, covering Mexican border
Could you compare being a journalist in Turkey with being a journalist in countries where you already worked?
The truth is that every country that I have covered are countries with censorship. In Iraq, you can’t cover the government, nor the Kurdish issue. If you do so, you go to jail. But I was also detained in the USA because I was crossing the border from Mexico. I have some friends that were arrested because they were covering the protests in front of the Trump’s tower in New York. Journalism is not an easy profession, anywhere in the world, including in the western countries. I think journalism is becoming more difficult everywhere. In Turkey, there are definitely stories that you can’t cover, such as the Kurdish issue. There a lot of things we don’t see in the local press anymore. Two days ago, there were more than one thousand people who got arrested in Istanbul for alleged links with the Gülenist movement, and none of the local medias covered it. One thousand is a huge number. There are also a lot of trials of journalists that are not covered. And we, as foreign journalists, don’t want to cover these stories too because we don’t want to get in troubles. We have to stick with what is permissible.
Five years ago, there were three types of publication in Turkey
What is your opinion about the Turkish press?
I think the Turkish newspapers have become really “tabloidy”. Five years ago, you would see three types of publication in Turkey. One was the real news, coming from Cumhuriyet or Hürriyet. Then you had something in the middle; pro-state, pro-government newspapers. And finally, you would have tabloids. Now, when you look at the Turkish newspapers, you don’t see the first category anymore, it has been erased. The second category has become pretty much like the third one. To me, every Turkish newspaper looks like a tabloid now.
Independent media outlets don’t have much influence
Are you following the Turkish independent media outlets?
I think these news outlets only attract a small proportion of educated people who are still interested. Unfortunately, a lot of educated, liberal and secular Turkish people have ceased to get interested. So, people who end up reading these outlets are already committed to their cause. According to me, these outlets don’t have much influence. Their efforts are great, they are symbols of hope and they are elements of resilience, but I don’t think they are really part of the society.
Do you see a difference between the content of the Turkish independent media outlets and the content of the traditional opposition newspapers?
Since these new media outlets are independent, they have more liberty to share and cover things in a bolder way. I definitely think that they are bolder. But the traditional newspapers are more mature. They understand the larger political games and the institutional standing of things in Turkey, because they have been doing the job for a long time. So, both these media outlets play a different role, they complement each other. I think it is fruitful to have both of them in the space. I don’t think they are in competition or in comparison between each other.
Would you consider the Turkish independent media outlets as reliable?
They are bold and their voice is important. But I think that there are certain protocols that we use in journalism, on which they don’t have a grasp entirely.
A lot left Turkey as it’s not possible to write anymore
Do you think that journalists from traditional newspapers have a role to play in developing these new independent media outlets?
They do have a role to play, but they are not going to play it, because they don’t want to go to prison. A lot of people left Turkey as it’s not possible to write anymore. So, even if you are working in a big and responsible media publication, you must survive in this environment. Big publications, even if they want to, can’t afford to support these young outlets. Even if we should encourage these new media outlets, and encourage people to follow them, they can’t become mainstream in this environment.