Journalism in Exile: “Turkey had turned into hell for journalism”


Yavuz Baydar

Yavuz Baydar (YouTube)

It’s 2016. Turkey is in a state of emergency after the failed coup against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Journalists like Yavuz Baydar found themselves more at risk than ever before. He had a decision to make: leave Turkey while he still could, or stay and potentially become part of the more than 160,000 journalists, protesters, dissidents and political pundits have since been jailed.

Baydar is an accomplished journalist with a career that spans four decades. In addition to his journalism roles, he was a co-founder of the non-profit P24, Platform for Independent Journalism which acts as an example of editorial independence in the Turkish press. He is the recipient of the 2014 Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP) for excellence in journalism and in the same year completed an extensive research paper on self-censorship, corruption of ownership in Turkish media, state oppression and threats over journalism in Turkey during his Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. In 2017 he was awarded the Morris B Abram Human Rights Award by UN Watch. He has worked with Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Guardian, Huffington Post, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, and Index on Censorship, even his regular opinion columns for the Turkish dailies Today’s Zaman, Bugün and Özgür Düşünce.  In early February 2018, Baydar  was awarded the prestigious ‘Journalistenpreis’ by the Munich-based SüdostEuropa Gesellschaft.

He decided to leave Turkey for France.

Two years later on 25 June 2018, Erdoğan was re-elected president with 53% of the ballot to his closest rival Muharrem Ince’s 31%. Under Turkey’s new constitution, Erdoğan has been given autocratic powers that enable him to appoint ministers and vice-presidents, call for a state of emergency and intervene directly in the rule of law.

He keeps in touch with the status of press freedom in Turkey in his ‘Gazette’ which acts as a hosting site for curated links to the news articles of the day. In his latest endeavor, Baydar is in managing editor at Ahval. He took some time to answer some questions from Index on Censorship’s Nicole Ntim-Addae.

Index: What makes you such an ardent supporter of media freedom?

Baydar: My education. I had the great chance of being enrolled at the prestigious School of Journalism at Stockholm University. It was a wonderfully open and generous environment. There, as our dean used to say, ‘we learned the basics of the social role of the profession’. We learned how much bravery it demands. It taught us to be free of any dogma, and act fearlessly against the holders of power. I owe a lot to the school, but also to Swedish Radio and TV Corporation. Then, also the BBC World Service was important for the formation.

Index: Where were you when you made the decision to leave? What was the trigger? 

Baydar: I was at home. It was a very intense night. And in the morning, after a short sleep, I assessed the situation and concluded that no matter with the outcome of the putsch, we the journalists would be declared the scapegoats and forced to pay the price. In any case, already then, Turkey had turned into hell for journalism.

Index: How is France different than Turkey? Do you feel settled there?

Baydar: Excellent environment, has always been for its commitment to freedom. It was perhaps there for the so called Young Turks, who were at the opposition to Sultan 120 years ago, had settled there. As I am now.

Index: What does you hope for Ahval to accomplish?  

Baydar: Good, honest journalism. Strong coverage for facts, especially economy. That it accurately, fairly informs Turkish readers, who are stripped of independent sources. Also the international audience gets a comprehensive picture of the reality in the country. Our backbone is the critical minds. We are not an opposition outlet; we are critical. It is the essence of journalism.

Index: How difficult has it been to be away from home? 

Baydar: For me, not much. I lived abroad long enough, so I am accustomed to it. For some of the staff, it may be difficult, because many of them experience the exile for the first time.

Index: Considering that Erdoğan won the election, and was awarded additional powers by and was awarded additional powers by the referendum, safe to return home soon?

Baydar: No. It is an unfree environment. Has no space for independent criticism. And the rule of law has been suspended over there. We will have to wait some time, before conditions change.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_column_text]

Media Freedom

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Media freedom is under threat worldwide. Journalists are threatened, jailed and even killed simply for doing their job.

Index on Censorship documents threats to media freedom in Europe through a monitoring project and campaigns against laws that stifle journalists’ work. We also publish an award-winning magazine featuring work by and about censored journalists.

Learn more about our work to protect press freedom.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width=”stretch_row_content”][vc_column][three_column_post title=”Global Journalist / Project Exile” full_width_heading=”true” category_id=”22142″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Media in exile: Eurasia’s last vestiges of freedom of expression


Journalists Erdem Gül and Can Dündar (Photo: Bianet)

Can Dündar, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyyet, one of Turkey’s most popular newspapers, was awaiting an appeal on his case in Turkey from Germany when the news of the coup d’etat in his homeland came. Scores of arrests followed, and his lawyer advised that Dündar, who had just narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in May 2016 outside a courtroom and was facing over five years in prison for allegedly leaking state secrets, stay in Germany.

He recalls that it was the hardest decision in his life, 40 years of which he had devoted to working as a journalist in Turkey.

“I thought it was impossible to go back, decided to stay and work from Germany, and about a year ago I with a small team started a media organization here, Özgürüz.”

When it’s time to leave

As shocking as Dündar’s story is, it is hardly unusual in the Eurasian region, where, according to International Media Support, there was a steady decline in freedom of expression in Eurasia since 2011. While for years the Committee to Protect Journalists named Turkey the biggest jailer of journalists globally, there are other nations competing for this dubious title.

For some journalists, the alternative to being jailed is an exile. According to Yavuz Baydar, chief editor of Ahval Online, a Turkey-oriented news site based in Germany, “That’s an inevitable result of oppression in any country because as long as the conventional media are suffocated and put under the yoke of the powers, it leaves journalists with no other choice than leaving the profession altogether or moving abroad.”

However, only a select few survive the shock and reemerge as viable journalists continuing to work in exile.

Some of the most successful examples of the media in exile emerged from the region and operating in the more permissive environment of Western Europe, according to Jens Uwe Thomas with RSF Germany, are Meduza, Amurburg and Spektr, Russia-oriented news portals, as well as MeydanTV, an Azerbaijani multimedia outlet in exile, Dündar’s Özgürüz and Baydar’s Ahval Online.

Challenges of exile

Thomas says that upon settling in exile, the first step for the journalists is usually to legalize their status, and then they start looking for opportunities to establish their outlets.

“The most important thing is to support these media abroad in terms of their registration,” says Bektour Iskander, editor of Kyrgyz media Kloop, who monitors exiled media and is in the process of creating a digital resources kit for them, adding that oftentimes, the media can’t relocate abroad due to lack of financial resources or visas.

“In 2010 we were threatened by the special services because of our investigative reporting about the son of president Bakiyev [of Kyrgyzstan]. But we had no opportunity to leave the country. Only now I realize that we were facing scary consequences, even assassination. We were so clueless as to how to do that, or find the resources for that, we were saved by the miracle, a revolution happened in the country and the threat disappeared,” he recalls.

One common thread for these media across the board is that while their editorial teams operate in exile, they have networks of journalists working for them from inside their home country, says Thomas, adding that secure communication and creating collaborative work environment in such circumstances is often a challenge.

“Those are operating under the great risks, which causes a lot of hurdles and obstacles for continuity and consistency in the content quality,” Baydar adds. MeydanTV founder Emin Milli agrees, “Unfortunately, journalists and their family members are under pressure. The ones who work with us have been attacked, some tortured. Some parents of theirs were fired”. Galima Bukhabrayeva, former editor of exiled Uznews web site that was allegedly hacked by the Uzbek government and is now defunct, says: “In our case, the best journalists in Uzbekistan worked with us, because in our case it wasn’t enough to be a journalist, one had to be a patriot and a citizen, and a brave person, at that.”

But the relocation doesn’t always pose a challenge, says Aleksandr Kushnar, editor of Russian exiled media Amurburg. Commenting on the success of Meduza, he says, “It makes more sense for them to be located where they are for the reasons of safety of the editorial staff [because] their geographic location doesn’t affect the quality of their content.”

Uniformly, the exiled media representatives bemoan the perception in their home countries that these media lack the situational awareness on the ground. One example of successfully solving this challenge is MeydanTV, says Iskander, adding that “they encourage citizen journalism, their readers [are] often involved in the content creation, they send photos, videos, materials.”

Another challenge all of the exiled media managers interviewed for this article cite is the lack of funding, which poses a constant problem on the back of everybody’s mind. What complicates things for the managers of these outlets is the stipulation set forward by the international donors that the medium be located in-country in order to satisfy the funding criteria, which is impossible to abide by for those operating in exile.

Silver linings

But not all is hopeless for the uprooted journalists and media managers, and alongside obvious challenges, there are reasons for cautious optimism. There are quite a few success stories among the outlets who learned to capitalise on the advantages of operating from free environments.  

Kushnar says attaining success is very difficult in reality, and he attributes it to the issues of funding, resources and teams. Speaking of the outlets, he says that  “Their capabilities are seriously restricted. Oftentimes, they cannot compete with the leading news agencies that are funded very generously. We all know very well how RT is funded all over the world. The goal for these media is to identify the niches where they still can get in and tell the truth. It’s very difficult when pro-Kremlin outlets have an audience of 40 million, and your budget is a thousand times smaller.”

The upsides are quite self-evident, according to Anton Lysenkov, editor of Latvia-based Spektr: “Our situation is beneficial. We are not subjected to constant audits and provocations. Our work environment is much more peaceful. I admire those who continue to work from Russia, and we are trying to help them,” he adds.

According to Baydar, “The upside is you can see everything with a bird’s eye, in a free domain, analyse things much more clearly in a macro way which gives a lot of advantages to focus on the main areas that need to be covered.”

Some media in exile not only survive, but they manage to thrive and even increase their audiences, like Meduza. “They have millions of unique visitors a month, and it’s been rising year to year. They’re  trusted,” says Milli. “They can work freely in Russia and come and go as they please. They’re a successful model.”

Galina Timchenko, Meduza’s editor-in-chief, cannot attribute the success of her outfit to any one strategy: “Unfortunately, there are no long-term plans and effective strategies for success in the current political climate. So far, we are not considering the possibility of moving to Russia because we cannot remain oblivious to the rising risks in that case. The media market in Russia is almost completely controlled by the state, and we don’t see a place for ourselves within such a market in the short term perspective,” she adds.

Preserving and rehearsing for the return

But what is the purpose of the media in exile and what is their end game?

While Kushnar says, exiled media preserve the freedom of the press in a dictatorship, Lysenkov adds that their goal is to supply the population with propaganda-free and less emotionally-charged content. Milli sees the enormous power of the free media to change the society for the better. “People have big hopes and need this, too. That’s why we keep working”.

Others see their ultimate goal as return home. Iskander cautions that “when a dictatorship in their home country comes to an end and [the media in exile] return home, their ratings start falling sharply. Because the credit of trust has been disintegrating, because the rhetoric could change from “at least someone is trying to do some good, even if it is from abroad” to “where have you been all these years while we were suffering?”

Despite such dangers, Bukharbayeva says, the ultimate goal of the exiled media is the return home. She points out that one loses focus and ability to write accurately when unable to visit their home country for over a decade, but “exiled media cannot exist indefinitely, and we must try to return because the time has come.”

Dündar, who has also started publishing a print magazine and opened a publishing house, is looking into opening a TV channel. He says his team’s current work is like a rehearsal in preparations for the future.

“It’s impossible to be in Turkey. But like the German Jews in WWII [who] came to Turkey, rehearsed there, came up with new ideas, and then went back to Germany after the war, we, Turks, are rehearsing and preparing for a better day in Turkey to return there”. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”10″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1523289736466-bd3f6e90-fdac-9″ taxonomies=”8607″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Yavuz Baydar: Turkey’s crippled and tarnished journalism found space to breathe


Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Illustration by Donkey Hotey / Flickr)

With the hollowing out of the Turkish media landscape in recent years, honest coverage on the night of the historic referendum was rare. Only an hour or so after the polls closed, viewers across the nation left most of the sycophantic television networks and focused on the only one they believed was airing content worthy of their interest.

Murdoch-owned Fox TV’s openly secular and mildly nationalistic anchormen broke the news that there was something seriously wrong with the vote counting. Hour after hour, they featured the leaders of the No camp – those opposed to significantly increasing the powers of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan – and allowed them to speak critically about the results.

What these journalists did should not be considered extraordinary. They were simply doing their job by giving the referendum the fair and diverse coverage it deserved. But in Turkey, this was extraordinary: a single TV channel broke from its shackles, defied self-censorship and ended up with record-high ratings. Fox TV’s staff knew there was a growing public appetite for real news.

I personally witnessed this hunger on several occasions. Some of the news analysis posted on my personal blog, NAR, in which I dug into the emergency rule and the purge drew tens of thousands of readers from all directions. Most recently, my article about the content of a top-secret EU report on the coup at the Cologne-based Turkish-Kurdish independent news site Artigercek was read by more than 100,000 people in 48 hours.

It’s no wonder then that Fox TV was bombarded by AKP supporters who took to social media both during and after the broadcast, calling its coverage “treason”. These trolls demanded public prosecutors investigate the content. Their anxiety was, from their vantage point, justified: in a society where up to 88% of the public get news from TV sources, the Fox broadcasts would have an impact, penetrating the seemingly solid ground on which Erdogan and his supporters stand.

Yet it was only a glimmer of hope for the bulk of Turkish society, separated into two distinct camps by Erdogan’s ruthless desire for authoritarian rule. But the Fox referendum coverage at least gave optimists the ability to think that no matter how hard the oppression becomes, Turkey’s resilient journalists will do their best to resist.

The referendum race took place on “unlevel ground”, as international monitors described it, because Turkey’s media landscape has been warped. As a vital part of his strategic plan to take Turkey on the authoritarian path, Erdogan and his team, backed by the increasingly subservient judiciary, and sycophantic media proprietors, have meticulously and systematically narrowed the space for independent journalism since Gezi Park protests.

Since the summer of 2013, we have been forced to witness mass layoffs, detentions and the brutal shuttering or seizing of nearly 200 privately owned media outlets were brutally shut down or seized. The punitive measures had two key components: TV broadcasts were kept under strict scrutiny and the proprietors of the channels were either bribed with large contracts or simply threatened with closure. There was also a deliberate move to demolish the Cihan News Agency’s powerful network, which had been key to an independent monitoring of earlier elections. Both actions worked successfully for Erdogan’s autocratic architecture.

As of 16 April 2017, the only two independent TV channels remaining are Fox TV and Halk TV. The vote counting was covered only by the Anatolian Agency, which is entirely under the rigid control of the ruling AKP. It was still remarkable that Turkey’s crippled and tarnished journalism could find a breathing space and reach out to public.

One wonders what the result of the referendum would have been if proper and balanced media coverage had taken place. Most probably the No camp would have benefited. But the ugly reality is that self-censorship has become normal and internalised in Turkey, especially since the last summer’s aborted coup. Neither investigative reporting nor public debate now exists.

The overwhelming majority of journalists who have been jailed – including the recently detained Die Welt correspondent Deniz Yücel – dared to dig into the corruption schemes that include, allegedly, the president and his family. Nearly all those behind bars – excluding Kurdish journalists, who find themselves targetted for many additional reasons – are editors, columnists and pundits who have tried to keep corruption and abuses of power under the spotlight.

In the post-referendum era, the restrictive conditions will remain unchanged or get worse. Erdogan will inevitably see the media as being responsible for his narrow victory of 51.4 %. Rather than ease his iron grip on journalism, the president knows he has to win the elections in August 2019 to secure his way to one-man rule. He has an invaluable instrument with which to strangle the media, which became more obvious when, following the referendum, he extended emergency rule by another three months. Have no illusions that the state of emergency will be discontinued before the next election and expect even greater pressure in the coming months.

The signs in that direction are strong enough: four consecutive indictments in the past two months targeting various groups of critical journalists – most of them now in jail – have seen calls for aggravated lifetime imprisonment. The case of Cumhuriyet daily is a prime example: the court was remarkably slow in defining a date for proceedings and then set the date for late July. All those in jail awaiting to be trialled in this case will now spend an additional three months behind bars. Meanwhile, the arrest of the newspaper’s accountant implies that the authorities are intent on weakening it — perhaps to extinction. Similar pressure should also be expected over the already strained Doğan Media Group.

Whether or not Fox TV will also be punished for its election coverage remains to be seen, but take it for granted that no critical pocket of journalism will remain unharmed. No wonder why many independent journalists are busy these days contemplating whether or not moving their base beyond Turkey’s borders will save their noble profession.


Turkey Uncensored is an Index on Censorship project to publish a series of articles from censored Turkish writers, artists and translators.

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Yavuz Baydar: In exile you spend your days in a fog


Turkey Uncensored is an Index on Censorship project to publish a series of articles from censored Turkish writers, artists and translators.

[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]More than anything else, it’s the central question that takes a grip on you: “Will I ever be able to see Turkey, my homeland, again?”

This was the feeling that caught me as I crossed the 15 July Martyrs Bridge over the Bosphorus just days after the failed coup attempt.

Before the failed coup it was known as the First Bridge. During the coup it was one of the centers of bloody scenes that marked the beginning of nationwide chaos and trauma that is still unfolding.

I knew I, just as my nation, was heading towards the unknown. At the time, the only thing that mattered was freedom – perhaps the most precious element in any journalist’s existence.

I knew, even as the tragedy for Turkey played out on the streets, that no matter the outcome, among the first victims would be our freedom, which had been fragile for years. Before the coup, we had been forced to deal with the monster of intolerance deeply embedded in the upper echelons of the state. The fierce power struggle had snowballed into a putsch.

As I watched the sun rise on 16 July, I knew without a doubt that the Turkey’s weary journalists — including me — would be rounded up sooner or later.

Freedom mattered. Freedom to be. Freedom to do. My most vivid thought, crossing the bridge, was to move to a free domain, to be able to do what I should: to observe, to listen and to write Turkey’s interesting and baffling story.

shutterstock_465370676_turkeyBut when you must leave, crossing into exile means something much different than a sigh of relief. You leave parts of yourself behind and you know that they will haunt you. Exile, voluntary or not, means a total reset on your existence. It is a journey laced with second thoughts and unforeseen consequences. You will questioned and criticised by some and admired by others for your adventurous nature.

But once in exile, you are very much on your own. Your routines ruined, and your plans abandoned or in need of modification. It’s like entering a darkened room that you must map by touch.

I felt, still, lucky.

Once across the border, all I felt initially was a sense of numbness. It was strangely calming because I had already made this journey out of Turkey into exile.

Decades ago, as a student repulsed by political violence and state brutality, I had to leave Turkey for Scandinavia. I had a memory, a developed sense of intuition: I knew what the stakes were. When you proceed to safety, you rely on your good friends, forget dwelling so much on tomorrow or the day after, and find a place to settle. Whenever in doubt, remember to be thankful that you are free. It’s calmness that matters.

Then you do two things: recalculate your sources for survival and try to do your best to save those that you left behind who are in danger. As I settled somewhere in Europe, I had already absorbed the notion that I would be living on the minimum.

I sensed that good colleagues would not leave Turkey’s exiled journalists out in the cold. Most of them loved Turkey and its people; found its story fascinating, and admired our resilience in the face of repeated waves of oppression. In many cases recently, I was proven right. Those of us in exile, I believe, do not feel abandoned.

Exile means living in solidarity. I persuaded two colleagues to get out before they too were served with invitations to discuss their involvement in the “media leg of a terrorist organisation”. A third changed their mind and luckily still stands free. I worked on the cases of journalists who are stuck or on the run, connecting them with others who can provide legal or financial help. It’s an ongoing process, just as the era of emergency rule continues.

Exile means living with the uncertainty of time. It eats at you. It is an indefinite sentence filled with questions: When will things return to a semblance of normality? Will I ever be able to return? What if I end up like an Iranian intellectual, who have never been able to go home? What if I will have to abandon journalism, cease my sharing of the truth and be forced to do something else?

My gut tells me that this time Turkey’s turmoil may turn out to be long-lasting and leave a more harmful imprint on the nation’s soul. We are in the midst of an open-ended story, mapping the contours by touch with very few clues about the finale.

Exile means spending your days in a fog.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Yavuz Baydar is the co-founder of Platform for Independent Journalism (P24), an initiative to support and promote editorial independence in the Turkish press. He is a veteran Turkish columnist and blogger and was awarded the Special Award of the European Press Prize in 2014.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Turkey Uncensored” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1485774765528-af1463e8-b299-7″ taxonomies=”8607″][/vc_column][/vc_row]