Can Dündar in Berlin, November 4, 2016 (Reuters/Axel Schmidt)
Can Dündar in Berlin, November 4, 2016 (Reuters/Axel Schmidt)

Turkish media in exile? Think again

Freedom is like air or water: something you appreciate only when it’s gone. Freedom for Turkish journalists was never as abundant as air or water–but nor was it ever as scarce as it has become in the last year.

Last July 15, a dangerous coup attempt occurred, unexpected and unsupported by the democrats in Turkey… But the democrats suffered as much as the putschists, since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seized the opportunity to put this failed attempt–which he called a “blessing from God”–to use as justification to pursue a witch hunt against all his opponents and to change the constitution, seizing all power.

Since July 15, 2016, some 150,000 people have faced criminal investigation, 50,000 have been arrested, and 70,000 civil servants have been dismissed. Nearly all opposition newspapers have been closed. Several have been placed under the state’s administration. More than 150 journalists and media workers have been arrested, in a campaign that has made Turkey the world’s largest prison for journalists. When the Committee to Protect Journalists last did its global census of journalists imprisoned around the world, Turkey held at least 81 in prison, more than any other country in any other year since CPJ began keeping records in 1992.

The result is silence, not only for those imprisoned but also for the rest who are still free. The climate of fear created by these arrests might have failed to silence some brave colleagues, but it has intimidated the majority of the media. It is now impossible to write, say, or ask anything that challenges the government. What we have witnessed is not only the obliteration of individual media outlets, one by one, but the obliteration of an entire profession.

Just as someone locked up in a cell tries to breathe through the tiniest gap, we too have sought alternative ways of telling the truth in this repressive environment. Some of us turned to social media, whereas others ventured to create media outlets in exile.

A skein of troubles

As luck would have it, I happened to be abroad on July 15, 2016. Taking my lawyers’ advice, I stayed in Germany, deciding to continue my work in journalism–something that was becoming increasingly impossible in Turkey. Hundreds of my colleagues were unemployed; I would join them to reach out to our viewers and readers in Turkey. Boldly would we give them the news that they could not receive otherwise.

Experience would teach me that this was no easy feat.

We encountered countless troubles that had never occurred to us: How would be finance it, first and foremost? With foreign funding? That would have been an enormous handicap for someone accused of espionage. Through subscription? How would willing supporters send their contributions? By risking finding their ways into police files?

And what about staff? It was hard to find professional Turkish journalists in Germany. Contributing to an opposition media outlet from Turkey was extremely risky. What if contributors used pen names? Would our correspondence be monitored? At any rate, we wanted to broadcast. Would staff wear masks? How many of my colleagues had to put the phone down sadly, saying they wished I had never called in the first place?

Let’s say we overcame all this. How would we reach our viewers or readers?

#Özgürüz (#WeAreFree)

Against all odds, with little support and just a handful of journalists, we founded a website, and named it #Özgürüz. We are free to say and write whatever we wish!

But the Turkish government has given itself a free hand to censor us. We were due to go live on the January 24. The government banned us on January 23. They never saw a word of what we had to say. No matter: They did it anyway. Thus did we gain the honor of being perhaps the first website to be banned before its launch.

And so it continued. Sources were hard to find. People were afraid to talk to an opposition media outlet that broadcast from abroad. Government censorship was an epidemic that silenced everyone.

Then, of course, there was the matter of security. It didn’t take long for a pro-government TV channel to do perhaps its first piece of investigative reporting in tracking down our office. One day, out of the blue, a crew broadcast from outside our door, or “the den of treason,” as they called it. They showed the building, down to the window of our office, and announced the address and our arrival and departure times on air. We are sitting ducks now.

Against all odds

We’ve had too many troubles to count; yet it is possible–nay, it is essential–to insist on telling the truth.

The first rule is to never give up. This resolve finds a way to overcome all troubles, since courage is as infectious as fear.

When we set off, brave supporters joined in. Our readers invested modest amounts. Crowdfunding paved our way. We placed a counter at the entrance to the office; it trilled with the joyful news of new contributions every day. This is how we found brave reporters and writers.

Access to our website was blocked in Turkey but Turkish readers were well versed in bypassing those blocks; they managed to read our articles. When the website was blocked, we pressed on through other internet channels: YouTube, Periscope, Facebook, Twitter… If one was blocked, we aired through another: the higher the wall, the easier to drill a hole.

It was hard to reach sources willing to appear on a live broadcast but news still came to us–news that no one in Turkey was brave enough to broadcast. Asking for contributions from well-known columnists was hard, but this was also an opportunity to train new ones.

In time, we grew ever bolder under the constant threat of attack.

Now we had brave reporters in the field, and more: citizen journalism lent a hand. We gave our Periscope password to all who wanted to be heard, so they could broadcast via #Özgürüz . This allowed us to reach 100,000 followers in a short period.

‘I’m glad I’m a journalist’

“Media in exile” is one of the most powerful channels that can confront repressive governments, an oasis that offers the freedom you long for, like air or water, new proof that a true journalist never gives up, a new era of experience that makes us say, “I’m glad I’m a journalist.”

Translated from the Turkish.