Turkey's anglophone media: Rereading the news on censorship

Apr 26, 2022 in Press Freedom
Hagia Sophia at Night

Anglophone media in Turkey historically has been a vehicle for trade and diplomacy. In recent years, however, it has been increasingly co-opted by domestic pro-government propaganda, following trends in the greater local media landscape. 

In circulation since 1961, Hürriyet Daily News is the longest-running anglophone newspaper still printing in Turkey. It once had the freedom to report critically on the current Turkish government and its policies. However, the attempted coup in the summer of 2016, and the politicized media purge that followed, led to a buyout of the paper which gutted the outlet’s leftist reputation, its oppositional reporting and secular values.

The anglophone daily Today’s Zaman, edited by followers of Fethullah Gülen, the man accused by the Turkish government of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt, was another casualty of this purge, closing down that same year. 

These are just two examples. Today, practically every major news outlet produced and funded in Turkey is pro-government. The crackdowns that began in the offices of local Turkish-language newsrooms eventually spread to the domestic anglophone media sector, too. In the wake of the downfall of independent media in the country, journalists in Turkey have increasingly turned to working for foreign news agencies. Some have given up on writing in Turkish entirely, opting to work in English instead.

“At the moment, the only good Turkish journalism on offer is funded by foreign news outlets. If you want to be a good Turkish writer today, ironically, you shouldn’t work for Turkish media companies,” said Kaya Genç, a journalist who began publishing articles and books in English in the mid-2000s after a decade of working in Turkish. “My generation of journalists have this traumatic experience of not only being fired from their positions in mainstream media, but also their archives getting excised from the web.”

Behind the news

Among those Turkish citizens who have made their journalism careers writing in English are a cadre of professionals who navigate the deep waters of censorship and propaganda. In the process some sank and fled Turkey, such as Ceylan Yeğinsu, who relocated to London after her reporting for The New York Times prompted death threats, attacks in the media and a smear campaign from President Erdoğan.

Yeğinsu joined the Istanbul bureau of the Times in 2013, the year of the Gezi Park Protests, which were another decisive pivot point for media freedom in Turkey. The following year, the pro-government news infrastructure launched Daily Sabah, an English-language news source, which offers a cleansed, diplomatic version of the government's conservative, right-wing populist agenda. Daily Sabah, and less so the aforementioned Hürriyet Daily News, are currently the closest parallels to the content of  mainstream Turkish media, if it were in English. 

Although local anglophone outlets don’t publish nearly as much of the antisemitism, hate speech and deliberate misinformaton that can be found in Turkish-language news, there are other problems. The absence of fact-checking and other editorial mismanagement in these English-language sources helps prop up nationalist propaganda.

Turkish journalists working for foreign publications are also not immune to political pressure. “We actually see freelancing journalists working for Dutch, German, etc., media running into trouble with the Turkish authorities, without enough of a protective shield,” said Nazlan Ertan, who frequently covers sensitive issues like violence against women and the Istanbul Convention for Al-Monitor, a leftist, critical observer of Turkey with editorial offices in Washington D.C. “They do not have the protection of the institution that they belong to simply because they are not regarded as staff. In the gray areas of Turkey this can become very risky.”

After the facts

In an effort to revitalize English-language long-form journalism in Turkey, Ertan’s colleague at Al-Monitor, Diego Cupolo, leads a newsletter, Turkey recap, which curates anglophone coverage of Turkey. Turkey recap is staffed with a number of Turkish journalists, including Gonca Tokyol, who has written extensively in English. “For me, it is not about writing more freely or auto-censoring myself less, but more about doing journalism conforming to global standards. It is almost impossible to do it in Turkish,” she said.

Since its launch in October 2019, in the wake of Turkey’s military occupation of northern Syria, Cupolo has edited the satirical tone of Turkey recap’s informative, wide-ranging email blasts. “We’re trying to understand what is happening around us because the information environment is so restricted and limited. We don’t have access to primary sources,” said Cupolo.

For reporters working in any language in Turkey, approaching government contacts, or maintaining long-standing relationships with sources, has become challenging in the aftermath of the 2016 media purge. “Now, there’s like a PR agency for the government. People don’t try to reach the government anymore, they reach the PR agency. And that’s not a good way to do journalism,” said Genç. 

When assessing what remains of independent anglophone publications operating in Turkey, the emergence of Duvar English in 2019 was a rare flicker of light in the midst of dark times for the local free press. But when its first editor Cansu Çamlıbel resigned last October, she cited the many “preposterous suits” filed against their journalists, Turkish and foreign alike.

Voicing the silence

One glimmer on the dim horizon of Turkey’s homegrown anglophone journalism is bianet, a decentralized, countrywide network of journalists and editors. Its English editor, Volga Kuşçuoğlu, oversees its anglophone division with more than 250 articles a month. Focusing on underrepresented communities, LGBTQ+ issues and the environment, the Sweden-funded bianet is chiefly concerned with human rights.

“I believe mainstream media outlets — which are basically the pro-government media in Turkey — try to look “less pro-government” in their English pages,” said Kuşçuoğlu. “I think the foreign media tends to exaggerate things about Turkey, both in a positive and negative way.” 

Anglophone media in Turkey continues to serve as a major news source in Turkey and abroad, including the remaining pro-government outlets and critical, foreign institutions. If the precarious, upcoming national elections of 2023 are any indication, English-language news in Turkey is due for more erratic, systemic shifts. Change is certain, but whether or not future journalists will be able to look back and scrutinize the journalism of today’s Turkey remains to be determined.

Photo by Xiaoyi Huang on Unsplash