Turkey citizen-journalists fight for press freedom

Mirjam Schmitt –
The studio is almost ready. Bahar Unlu, a student,will be standing in front of the TV cameras for the first time on Sunday to moderate a programme on Turkey’s presidential election.
She doesn’t have much experience.
“I’ll manage somehow,” she says, smiling. From a small studio in the Kadikoy district of Istanbul, Unlu and her colleagues at the Dokuz8HABER TV channel will be reporting live on the election.
Reporters around the entire country will feed in their stories, focusing on possible election irregularities. They are firmly on the side of the opposition, showing their support through platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
Dokuz8HABER regards itself as an antidote to the mainstream media. The network evolved from the anti-government Gezi protests in 2013 and was founded by journalist Gohkan Bicici to fight against “censorship.” The platform offers journalistic training to volunteers, 500 of whom are working for it around Turkey.
The citizen-journalists already reported on the April 2017 constitutional referendum.
On Sunday they will have a special role, their TV station being part of the “Platform for Fair Elections,” an umbrella group coordinating numerous election observers.
The network wants to ensure that any possible criticism of the election process does not get ignored.
Mainstream media in Turkey have long refrained from critical reporting.
The major share of TV broadcasters and newspapers are close to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his governing party, the conservative-Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP). There was a time when the media outlets of the Dogan group, including CNN Turk, Channel D and the Hurriyet newspaper, were not completely under the government’s sway. But then, in May, a company close to Erdogan bought up the Dogangroup.
Gurkan Ozturan, a journalist and the managing director ofDokuz8HABER, says grimly: “Before the sale there was at least the illusion of a pluralist media. Now, not even this illusion remains.”
What the country needs is independent news analysis. However, already during the 2017 referendum — which ultimately gave Erdogan more power — this was possible only to a limited extent, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have found.
The OSCE election observers concluded that the “one-sided dominance in the reporting, and the restrictions against the media” had limited the chance for voters to freely form their own opinions.
Nowadays, Turkish television shows virtually nothing but Erdogan — a phenomenon confirmed by data from the RTUK broadcasting authority.
In June, Ilhan Tasci of the opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), a member of the RTUK board, published figures showing that during the period of May 14-30, Erdogan and the AKP received 68 hours of broadcasting time on state broadcaster TRT.
By comparison, opposition candidate Muharrem Ince and his CHP party garnered only six hours and 43 minutes of broadcast time.
The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and its jailed candidate Selahattin Demirtas were not covered at all.
Last Sunday, as required by law, Demirtas was accorded TV time. He spoke from his prison cell.
Demirtas will be appearing in a second interview on June 23, the day before the elections.
According to Reporters Without Borders, Turkey has plunged to 178th place on the press freedom list, down from 155th previously.
Dozens of Turkish journalists are now in prison.
After a failed military coup in 2016, Erdogan used emergency powers to close numerous media outlets. For now, Dokuz8HABER, which has 10 paid staffers in Istanbul, is concentrating on its election day reporting.
Besides the issue of possible electoral fraud, the concern is to prevent “manipulation by the media,” Ozturan says.
There are no projections of election results in Turkey. However, in the past, the first partial results disseminated by the state news agency Anadolu have tended to show a clear lead for Erdogan.
Ozturan fears that this kind of reporting could weaken the opposition’s will.
“Election observers could become demoralised and disappointed and go home, even though not all the ballots have been counted yet,” he says.
“That’s where the danger of election fraud begins.” — dpa