When two young journalists were married in a Turkish prison in 2017, they vowed to be always together “in bondage and in freedom, in autocracy and in democracy.”
Minez Bayülgen, a journalist with the news website Diken at the time, had only a few minutes to marry her colleague Tunca Öğreten during a half-an-hour prison visit. Öğreten, who was also a journalist at Diken then, was in jail for reporting on the leaked emails of Berat Albayrak, a former minister and President Tayyip Erdoğan’s son-in-law.
A few months after this unusual wedding, another journalist couple — Kadri Gürsel, who was a former columnist for the Milliyet newspaper and a former Agence France-Presse (AFP) reporter, and his wife and colleague, Nazire Kalkan Gürsel — passionately kissed each other in front of the same prison in Istanbul’s Silivri district. Gürsel was released after a nearly year-long arrest during the trial of Cumhuriyet journalists for “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member.”
I was in front of the Silivri prison, along with dozens of journalists and press freedom advocates, on that September night when the Gürsels were reunited. AFP photographer Yasin Akgul captured the moment, entitling his iconic shot “the Kiss of Freedom.”
In 2017, Turkey was the world’s worst offender when it came to jailing reporters for their work. After a brief period of improvement, this year the government launched a fresh wave of mass arrests targeting reporters and criminalizing journalism with new laws ahead of the elections in which Erdoğan is seeking another term. In addition to the ongoing criminalization of journalism, Turkish journalists face physical and online attacks, hefty administrative fines for critical reporting, strategic private and government lawsuits, insufficient financial and technological resources, low public trust, and the algorithmic bias of digital platforms that boost pro-government media outlets. These challenges generate a powerful chilling effect, spreading self-censorship and creating the false perception that independent journalism in Turkey is no longer possible.
But Turkish journalism is giving itself its own kiss of freedom. Many independent journalists are stubbornly persisting with a mission to sustain quality journalism in Turkey despite all the political, social, and technological challenges. Although the mainstream media is almost totally controlled by Erdoğan and his allies, a new breed of independent reporting flourishes in various digital mediums and formats, from newsletters to video to podcasts. There are dozens of examples, but here are four in the vanguard of next-generation Turkish journalism.
Three years after they married in a prison, Bayülgen and Öğreten, who was released in December 2017, founded Kapsül, a newsletter that began appearing in the first days of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020. Launched as a one-page factsheet that filtered out the disinformation, propaganda, and editorializing around Covid, Kapsül now has 54,000 subscribers, more than the real circulation of many newspapers controlled by Erdoğan and his cronies.
“A news bombardment started with the pandemic,” says Bayülgen, “and we were confused, as were many readers. Experts were speaking, sometimes voicing conflicting opinions, and graphs and data were shared, although it was hard to verify them.” Eyeing 100,000 subscribers by the end of 2022, Bayülgen and Öğreten are on their way to financial sustainability, attracting donations from readers as well as commercial investors and sponsorship deals for their daily and weekly newsletters.
In addition to covering important stories, Kapsül is committed to treating its journalists well. “I wish the priority of media outlets in Turkey was investing in their journalists,” Bayülgen says, adding that Kapsül’s goal is to provide better professional conditions — shorter working hours, private health insurance, and professional equipment, as well as “humane” salaries and severance fees — to its growing team of reporters. “There are many journalists in Turkey who keep producing news bravely — and paying the price.”
That price can be astonishingly high. In 1995 when he was an AFP reporter, Gürsel was kidnapped by militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). He was fired by Milliyet in 2015, four years after the newspaper was sold to the Demirören Group, a staunchly pro-government corporation that owns assets in sectors including energy, industry, mining, real estate, and media. According to Gürsel’s memoir, the corporation’s owner, Erdoğan Demirören, had offered to keep paying his salary if the columnist would stop writing his columns, which were critical of the ruling party, during the run-up to the 2015 elections. Gürsel declined what he described as “a dirty offer” and was consequently fired from Milliyet. He was soon hired as a columnist and editorial adviser of Cumhuriyet, which was one of the last major independent newspapers in Turkey then. Soon afterward, Gürsel found himself in prison, where he stayed some 11 months during the controversial Cumhuriyet trial, which was slammed by press freedom groups as yet another attempt by the Erdoğan administration to capture independent media. The evidence in the indictment was essentially news reports and op-eds criticizing Erdoğan and his political allies. IPI, which monitored the trial, noted that “the case against key figures at one of Turkey’s last three independent daily newspapers involved no crime, no evidence and no justice.”
In bondage and in freedom, Gürsel has retained his impact and prestige as one of the most respected journalists in Turkey. With his colleague Ismail Saymaz, he hosts a live discussion and political analysis program on Halk TV, one of the last independent broadcasters, reaching millions of viewers each day.
Gürsel, now a member of the administrative council of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, believes the seed of Turkish journalism’s future is being sown in smaller newsrooms and start-ups. Today’s smaller outlets may one day become the “new mainstream” media if they can grow organically “through structural, financial, and institutional enhancement,” he says.
Gürsel thinks that in today’s harsh environment, solidarity among journalists is the key to creating that infrastructure. He believes that independent outlets should defend each other by uniting around the common mission of press freedom. Solidarity serves “like cocoons for good journalism that would hatch when the best moment will come or like seeds that would grow fine flowers when democracy would wash away the toxic agents of authoritarianism in the soil,” he adds.
And there are signs of solidarity, even amidst competition and sometimes professional jealousy among news outlets. When independent broadcaster TELE1 was fined 1.8 million Turkish liras in June for news stories and political commentary unfavorable to Erdoğan and his allies, its competitor Halk TV offered to pay the fine because, as Halk TV’s Chair Cafer Mahiroglu said in a tweet in June 2022, “we should light the candles against the darkness all together.”
Medyascope was founded in 2015 by Ruşen Çakir, a senior journalist who worked for some of Turkey’s most prominent media outlets in broadcast and print journalism. Initially focusing solely on video journalism and political news analysis distributed via social media platforms, the outlet has recently significantly increased its reach and impact.
Only a few months after its founding, Medyascope had already become a destination for news and analysis, such as when it provided all-day coverage of the Ankara bombings in 2015, the deadliest terror attack in Turkey’s history, or when it aired a live video interview with former deputy prime minister Bülent Arincç, revealing that the top politician was now highly critical of the ruling party that he had co-founded.
Medyascope’s impactful reporting from the field continues. When Turkey’s mainstream media outlets, captured by the ruling party, were mostly silent about the government’s poor response to devastating forest fires in the summer of 2021, Medyascope sent multiple reporters to the worst-affected areas, producing original journalism the public craved. The outlet, which had won the International Press Institute’s Free Media Pioneer Award in 2016, is now also lauded for its diversified content.
Today, more than 3,000 readers and viewers regularly donate to Medyascope, funding a staff of 50 in four towns in Turkey; another 50 journalists work on a freelance basis for the outlet, according to Medyascope’s news coordinator Kaya Heyse. That team produces around 2,000 pieces of original journalism and some 750 videos each month for its website as well as four YouTube channels. Besides Turkey’s three largest cities — Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir — Medyascope also has an office and reporter in the Kurdish-majority southeastern province of Diyarbakir. As Kurdish media outlets in the region and their journalists are targeted in government crackdowns, the importance of Medyascope’s continued coverage from the field in the southeast is even more important. Medyascope’s Diyarbakir-based reporter Ferit Aslan keeps covering crucial issues for the region, not only the government’s persecution of opposition politicians and journalists but everything that affects the daily life of the local community — from how Kurdish farmers cope with Turkey’s skyrocketing inflation to why the house of the only Assyrian family in a Kurdish village was recently assaulted.
Last year Medyascope was targeted by a pro-government media smear campaign labeling it as a “traitor” for accepting grants from U.S.- and E.U.-based non-governmental organizations. It happened even though Medyascope — unlike most media outlets in Turkey — shares openly that it is also supported by journalism grants from institutions including the U.S.-based Chrest Foundation, the European Endowment for Democracy, Heinrich Böll Stiftung, and Sida.
Still, Heyse says reader donations and digital ads are crucial revenue sources: “We reach around 10 million people on all platforms each month. We are now planning to set up data analytics and sales departments. We are on our way to fix the sustainable business plan that we have in our head. We are almost there!” The main challenges for startups, according to Heyse, are “the lack of institutionalization and money.” Turkey needs more examples of digital native newsrooms that produce “proper” journalism and new business models to sustain them.
Legacy newsrooms are innovating, too. The daily Sözcü, which has one of the highest circulations in the country, is also among the most trusted news brands, according to the latest Reuters Institute Digital News Report. Sözcü’s chief digital officer Reha Başoğul stresses that it is trying to innovate with a “reader-first” mindset. Sözcü “contextualizes” the first-party data of millions of its active users to understand their behaviors and needs. “We enrich this data with surveys, user experience studies, customer relations management databases and in many other ways to cater the best content and the best products to our readers,” he adds.
Başoğul emphasizes that Sözcü is not only trusted by its audience but also by its advertisers. Unlike many digital publishers in Turkey, the newspaper prioritizes user engagement over pageviews as its primary metric. It also applies a unique policy for brand safety, blacklisting certain types of digital ads by using not only legal and commercial measures but also ethical ones. Başoğul believes that such steps enabled Sözcü to maintain reliable ad revenue even in such a harsh political and economic environment.
Yet legacy newsrooms are not immune from the Erdoğan administration’s efforts to muzzle critical coverage. Five journalists and two columnists from Sözcü were sentenced to jail in 2020 — again with an indictment that included no evidence other than their published articles. According to a report by Turkish law professor Yaman Akdeniz and researcher Ozan Güven, hundreds of news articles by Sözcü are blocked or deleted by Turkish authorities. The themes of the articles are varied but many of them cover issues like substantial allegations of corruption related to government officials and even mere statements from opposition politicians criticizing the ruling party.
Çiğdem Toker, an investigative journalist whose expertise is economic issues, is one of Sözcü’s most widely read columnists and one of the reporters who is targeted most by the government. She consistently reveals cases of corruption and abuse of power, often involving public tenders for the government’s “crazy construction projects.” One of her columns was digitally blocked after she revealed that the massive Kanal Istanbul project, an artificial waterway strongly advocated for by Erdoğan, would cost double the normal amount due to the apparently corrupt process of its public tender. She’s also consistently the target of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) lawsuits brought by powerful people like Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Selcuk Bayraktar, and a number of companies that get lucrative government contracts. In March, a court ruled that Toker “defamed” a foundation co-founded by Bayraktar in a news report. She was forced to pay nearly $1,700 in compensation.
Criminal lawsuits and claims for damages “can cow especially younger reporters who work without job security,” Toker says, which can lead to self-censorship. “For more seasoned journalists, such lawsuits are not frightening but they consume our time and energy. From the moment such a lawsuit is launched, you find yourself trying to explain to the public that your news report is not something illegal. This is a ridiculous process that also steals the time that you could allocate to investigating a high-quality news story.”
As Toker notes, younger reporters looking to enter journalism face even more daunting challenges, especially if they come from minority populations.
Yağmur Kaya, a young Kurdish journalist from eastern Turkey, says her first job applications were all refused. Kaya states that each refusal came just after she stated she was from Kars, a town with a large Kurdish population. Frustrated that she was discriminated against due to her ethnicity, she eventually stopped looking for a journalism job and worked at a cosmetics company instead. Then one day in November 2015 she heard during a lunch break that human rights activist and lawyer Tahir Elçi was killed in a firefight between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants in the city of Diyarbakir. Some of her Turkish nationalist co-workers celebrated the murder and hurled racist insults at her. Kaya says: “I asked myself what I was doing there, and I resigned.”
In 2015, Kaya started her dream job: She was hired by Dicle News Agency (DIHA), a Diyarbakir-based “pro-Kurdish” outlet, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, to do, in her words, “journalism in defense of those who suffer, those who cope with poverty and whose rights are violated.” This perspective is what Turkey’s mainstream media, dominated by “aging Turkish men,” always lacked, Kaya says. But DIHA was shut down with 18 other media outlets by a presidential decree in 2016, and Kaya found herself unemployed again. Now as a freelance journalist, Kaya has been reporting from all over Turkey, covering civic protests, government censorship, and forest fires.
In the past two years, Kaya has interviewed workers who were beaten by the police to break their strike in Istanbul, investigated the awful conditions in animal shelters in Turkey’s southwest, and reported from the demonstrations of women against femicide. She became the story in March 2021 when police arrested her while trying to cover a demonstration of Boğaziçi University students, who were protesting the government’s anti-democratic moves to “capture” this institution, too. Like countless women in Turkey, Kaya had to cope with sexual harassment while doing her job. “I get used to silly remarks by men, like those who sarcastically ask why I have make-up and use perfume, because you know, I’m a journalist,” she says. Verbal abuse and “molesting staring” is the norm, and physical harassment is not rare if you’re a female journalist in Turkey.
After many arrests and instances of sexual harassment by men, Kaya vows to “find a new way” for journalism amid this battle on so many fronts. “As a woman and as a journalist, the challenges that I am facing in this political climate are all expected,” she says. “Instead of complaining, I strive to be more courageous, more daring, and more rebellious as much as the level of difficulty and tyranny increases.” That courage and daring can be observed among other, increasingly diverse news outlets.
Uraz Kaspar, an Armenian goldsmith-turned-entrepreneur, is one of the three co-founders of Podfresh, which emerged from the trio’s earlier success with Medyapod, Turkey’s first podcast network. Kaspar said he won a scholarship to Lomosonov Moscow State University’s Journalism department in 1999 but chose to stay in Turkey to get a degree in design and become a university lecturer. “Podcasting as a medium finally gave me a chance to combine my experience in design and business, as well as my passion for journalism,” he says.
Podfresh hosts more than 350 independent podcasts, accounting for almost 20 percent of the shows produced regularly in Turkey. It has grown its revenues by 15 percent on average each month. This growth, according to Kaspar, is the result of local and international brands’ rising interest in sponsorship and advertising in Turkish-language podcast content. The Kisa Dalga (Short Wave) podcast, Daktilo (Typewriter) 1984 podcast, and the Kapsül newsletter’s daily podcast Bülten (Bulletin) are among the best examples of next-generation journalism in Turkey,” says Kaspar.
Podfresh also entered into a collective bargaining agreement with Turkey’s Journalists’ Union (TGS), the first podcast network outside North America to do so, while also providing more than 300 free sessions of podcast training to TGS members. “Our efforts related to journalism are not a part of our revenue model,” Kaspar says. “We see them as non-profit NGO activities for the public good.” He adds that many members of Turkey’s Gen Z have their first contact with news through podcasts, and the human touch of the voice enables the audience to engage more deeply with the journalist and the news. Almost none of them buy a newspaper or watch the evening news on TV. Podcasts can be one of the most powerful ways to connect the young with journalism.
Passion, perseverance, and innovation all play a role in sustaining the improbable survival of independent journalism in Turkey. As Erdoğan seeks reelection in 2023, and with Turkey’s Russian-style disinformation law on the agenda, the country is at a crossroads of bondage and freedom. Gürsel, for one, is confident. “I’m paradoxically more optimistic than ever, given the fact that the media outlets and journalists targeted [by Erdoğan’s regime] are the ones who have been sustained so far by their resistance and resilience,” he says. “I see no reason not to believe that they will intelligently outperform this weakened and confused regime at this highly critical moment of Turkey’s history.”
Reporting at Risk
From Kashmir to Russia to Mexico and beyond, journalism is under threat. Reporters Without Borders estimates that nearly three-quarters of the 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index either completely or partially block the work of newsrooms. The threats to journalists are physical, political and, especially under authoritarian regimes, increasingly existential. In our Reporting at Risk series, Nieman Reports is publishing essays by journalists who are managing to do vital independent reporting — often at great personal risk.