A group of people protest outside the Hurriyet newspaper in Istanbul, Turkey, in September 2015, hours after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan renewed a verbal attack on the paper, accusing it of deliberately distorting his words

A group of people protest outside the Hurriyet newspaper in Istanbul, Turkey, in September 2015, hours after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan renewed a verbal attack on the paper, accusing it of deliberately distorting his words

Engin Onder was a recent college graduate in 2012 when, frustrated by the state of the media in Turkey, he joined with friends on Twitter to launch 140journos, a citizen-sustained news outlet. He described the early days in “A Sense of Exhilaration and Possibility,” for the Spring 2014 issue of Nieman Reports. On January 19, 140journos relaunched their site to mark their 5th anniversary, with big plans ahead for 2017, including launching an English-language service for journalism institutions and professionals.

We recently e-mailed with him to find out how it’s going, now that more than 150 news outlets have been shuttered in the wake of a failed military coup last summer and Turkey has beat China as the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, according to figures compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Even foreign news outlets are facing restricted access to the country; on January 17, New York Times correspondent Rod Nordland was denied entry to Turkey and sent back to London after he arrived at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.

In our exchange, Onder told us, “The sense of exhilaration and possibility disappeared. … But I still have a strong belief that, after all we went through, we’re supposed to be the ones to create a channel for dialogue and seek reconciliation in the extremely polarized political and media environment in Turkey.” The exchange has been edited and condensed.

 How has 140journos changed since 2014?

Back then, people of my generation—people who are in their 20s—thought of media as a tool to deal with political leadership. After years of online activity, street protests, and elections, people are probably fatigued. They are seeing no chance so they are giving up on creating content and their online activity is decreasing.

In 2015, we had a group of 750 people creating content for us on a regular or irregular basis. That was outstanding, but after the final general elections that the governing AK Party won by a landslide in November 2015, citizen journalism has been on a serious decline.  People who created content for us for years now prefer to stay away from protests. Some contributors were arrested, and a great deal of them were frightened after explosions, the military takeover attempt, and the state of emergency was declared in July 2016.

Due to curfews declared in the southeastern cities in the summer of 2015, our citizen journalists couldn’t get out. One contributor from Mardin, Turkey told me “Engin, I can’t go outside. There’s conflict on the street between Turkish soldiers and PKK militants. I could have gone upstairs on the terrace but a helicopter is flying above my town and it makes me an open target if I go live on Periscope.”

At the same time, content consumption has increased so very much. 140journos today has a reach of 75 million impressions per month and has more than 250,000 followers across 15 social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Medium, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Periscope, etc.

I’ve followed the advice of Zeynep Tufekci [a Turkish-born professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who studies the intersection of technology and society] and developed plans to grow online and get organized offline. 140journos got a grant from the European Cultural Foundation to visit Anatolian cities to train municipal employees in press and public relations. The point was to teach them how to send content to 140journos. We then got funding from Twitter to visit Anatolian universities but it’s become really hard to visit universities in the east and southeastern regions because it’s not safe to travel there.

What stories are you especially proud to have brought to the public’s attention?

A couple of stories that come to mind:

Are there any stories that might otherwise have gone unreported?

Definitely. News that we cover is copied and distributed by other alternative media outlets as well. This leads mainstream media to pick up on our reporting. One of the most-read stories on 140journos in 2016 is a feature on a Turkish Greek who runs the last pork butcher shop in Istanbul. Rather than importing, he produces pork meat in Turkey, growing his own pigs. Because people like him have been persecuted in Turkey, he preferred to hide himself from cameras:

Another top read of 2016 is a story about Istiklal Avenue, once Turkey’s most prestigious avenue in the heart of Istanbul. It’s still the city’s most important entertainment hub but this area has been subject to a marginalization by the government over the years so it’s losing a lot of its charm. Rents rose, many venues closed, the old stores that defined the soul of the avenue got kicked out due to new laws, and pedestrian traffic dropped significantly. 140journos noticed and documented the changes. It’s been covered by all TV channels, newspapers, magazines and became a hit on social media. Istiklal Avenue is now seen as a wreck.

How does the crackdown on freedom of speech affect 140journos?

Turkey is highly polarized. It’s really hard for different voices to get heard on a large scale. Suppression of information in Turkey is real, media is not free, independent media is weak.

Yet I visit European and American think tanks, make public presentations, and talk about our work. We at 140journos haven’t faced a direct assault by the government. We create conversations about current events by remaining neutral. We still believe there’s an open door for dialogue and discussion about everything on Turkey’s agenda.

I understand that the government is now blocking VPN servers. Is the government getting more successful at cracking down on the free flow of information? Is it possible to stay ahead of these efforts or are there limits to what technology can do to aid the flow of information in Turkey?

Blocking VPNs is a new thing and it’s scary. The government is getting more successful at learning how people bypass internet bans and is blocking those avenues as well. Even though temporary internet bans are common whenever there’s a big event going on, there’s more blocking online than there was in 2014. We will have to turn to using personal VPNs. We’re always looking into new ways to stay online.

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