Journalism under siege: 2016 Cumhuriyet protest

Three days ago, 17 reporters and executives from Cumhuriyet newspaper stood trials under the accusations of aiding terrorist organizations (PKK and DHKP-C) and supporting the Gülen movement which has been considered to have orchestrated last year’s coup attempt. 

Established in 1924, Cumhuriyet is Turkey’s oldest daily newspaper, which has long been known for its independent reporting, its secularist, oppositional line as well as its affiliation with the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP). 

These are some of the photos that I took during a protest for Cumhuriyet newspaper in 2016 during my last few days in Turkey before my fellowship visa expired. On October 29 last year, several police trucks surrounded the Cumhuriyet’s headquarters in Şişli in an attempt to enter the newspaper. Hundreds of protestors showed up and prevented the police from entering, in solidarity with the newspaper’s staff. 

Inside the small and cramped bureaus, journalists and editors still tried to continue with their work, despite the chaos from outside and direct threats coming from the local authorities. The protest went on for two weeks, during which protestors would stay from early morning until late. Despite all this, by the end of 2016, more than half the staff of the newspaper were arrested. 

Having talked to various journalists and photographers working for the newspaper, I understand very well that the pressure has always been there. In Turkey, news outlets that are critical or opposing their state policies and actions are reportedly subjected to losses in both economic and symbolic capital and Cumhuriyet newspaper is one of the most typical examples. Turkish government has long exerted pressure on advertisers to haul business with dissident newspapers such as Cumhuriyet, and instead turns this investment towards their own loyalist press. 

Against the backdrop of the country’s internal social and armed conflicts in Southeastern region, there have been increasing demands that news outlets be attached to the national, collective interests. Failure to do so results in losses in revenues. 

An economic deprivation incentivizes self-imposed censorship as journalists and editors refrain from publishing critical content that might lead to institutional and financial punishments, and which in turns prompts them to look for materials in line with popular demands. Self-imposed censorship might prove to be of equal effects to coercion, especially when there are lacks of independent media watchdogs assigned with the authority to oversee levels of press freedom and to protect whistleblowers in Turkey. 

By March 2017, 173 Turkish outlets have been shut down, and more than 2,500 journalists have been fired as a result, according to CHP representatives.

To sum up the state of Turkish media today, Ahmet Şık, imprisoned investigative journalist and author of “The Imam’s Army”, wrote, “When the media is in this state, the only platform remaining for political criticism is social media. As long as the access is not blocked, as long as the internet is not cut off due to government censorship, and as long as you have not written anything to offend AKP’s internet trolls and informant citizens and prosecutors, then there are no barriers for you to use your right to criticize. However, there is no guarantee that you will not be arrested for using this right.” 

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