For Kurdish journo, elections a soapbox for press freedom

Beleaguered by censorship, journalists across Anatolia struggle to highlight corruption and debate local issues


 They have refused to go quietly, but with each passing year, Turkey's opposition media faces a growing number of threats, firings and character assassinations.
Few journalists, however, have protested their situation quite like Ferit Tunç.
Sitting at the wheel of a delivery van emblazoned with the slogan “Stop Corruption!” the 32-year old plied the streets of this hometown of Batman on a recent summer afternoon, a rooftop speaker blasting Kurdish folk anthems into this southeastern city's winding alleyways and storefronts.
Tunç squinted though his spectacles, eager to glimpse a pedestrian waving back. “Just a few weeks ago, people didn't really know who I was,” he said. “Now I see them wave from time to time.”
Ever since his local newspaper began publishing stories of official corruption one year ago, Tunç says he has been hounded by local authorities and driven to the brink of bankruptcy.
His reports on corruption, though vindicated in court, have seen the state deny him advertising revenue, local officials open scores of defamation suits, and a key business partner withdraw his support from the paper.
Tunç, in response, decided to run for parliament in today’s general elections in order to make his pains known and raise awareness about the depth of local press censorship in Turkey.
“People talk about how rotten Turkey's press is at the top, but it's rotten all the way through,” he said, trying to make himself heard over the election music booming through his van. “People in this city have lost the right to talk about issues that matter to them.”
Of course, it doesn't take a blaring election anthem to highlight the decline of press freedom in Turkey.
Earlier this year, advocacy group Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 149th out of 180 countries in its press freedom index.
On live TV last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed that Can Dündar, editor and chief of the daily Cumhuriyet, would “pay a heavy price” for releasing a video of Turkish security forces apparently transporting ammunition to Islamist militants in Syria. Days later, Erdogan's lawyer demanded Dündar serve a Kafkaesque 2 life sentences and 42 years of jail time for his reporting.
But if the risks of major-league journalism are abundantly clear, Tunç's experience suggests that even modest cases of independent reporting can become a nightmare.
Local news nightmare
When Tunç, a graduate of Marmara University's school of journalism, quit his local advertising job and founded the Yön Gazetesi in September 2013, he hired eight staff, secured the support of a local businessman, and hoped to gain accreditation from the local Press Bulletin Authority (BIK), which grants local newspapers around 10,000 lira ($3,750) a month to publish official announcements and advertisements from state-run companies like Turkish airlines, Turk Telekom and Halkbank.
A pious Kurd, he praises the economic achievements of the AK Party, but hopes the Kurdish-rooted Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP) will carve out 10 percent of the vote on Sunday, curtailing the ambitions of president Erdogan.
A childhood of bitter poverty has made Tunç widely skeptical of politicians' promises, and “in truth, I haven't voted in an election since 2007,” he confesses.
But in May 2014, Tunç penned an 800-word article that would quickly pull him into the whirlpool of local politics.
The story centered on state-run Batman University, which had recently hired rector Abdüsselam Uluçam's daughter for a position in the school's human resources department.
A competing applicant for the job had gone to court against the university, alleging that Uluçam's daughter hadn't scored high enough on a screening exam and had falsified documents on her application.
“Not one of the four other papers in Batman reported the case,” said Tunç. “Now I know why. It took less than an hour to write, but I still feel the impact.” Rector Uluçam soon opened three separate court cases against the Yön Gazetesi, while the university took out a full-page ad in four local newspapers to denounce the story.
A court would later throw out Uluçam's lawsuits, while in May of this year, Batman University was forced to fire the rector's daughter after a court ruled against the school.
Ever since it published the story, however, Yön Gazetesi has found itself starved of the state company advertising it once expected. “We have continued to print corruption stories, and the BIK has simply turned the taps off,” he said.
To a foreign reader, the paper's stories hardly seem the stuff of controversy. Last year, he faced a lawsuit after reporting that Batman's city museum was inexplicably paying twice the market rate for the food stocked in its cafeteria.
“The paper has had 10 legal cases against it for critical reporting over the last year. All seven cases that have ended have exonerated our paper,” said Tunç. “But there is still no response from BIK about about getting advertising funds. It's devastating because most people read news on the internet, so state money is a local journalist's lifeline.”
Citing a lack of state support, Tunç's only business partner withdrew his support late last year, leaving Yön Gazetesi deeply in debt. “Now, the paper has 12,000 lira ($4,500) of unmet monthly expenses, most of which become debt,” one of Tunç's employees estimates.
BIK: “a tool for punishing opposition papers.”
Since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept to power in 2002, the BIK has become a powerful tool for funding local journalists across Anatolia.
In September of last year, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç boasted that the BIK had expanded the number of papers receiving state advertising revenue from 820 to over 1,200 over the last decade, and April of this year, the BIK extended over 730,000 lira ($275,000) in aid to 174 indebted journalists throughout Turkey.
But criticisms of the institution abound. In January, media ratings firm Nielsen published a report, which compared the volume of state ad revenue given to national newspapers in 2014.
The study found that the aggressively pro-AKP Star was given 120 times as much state advertising as the opposition daily Sözcü, despite a circulation one third the size. The opposition Zaman daily, which is linked to the Gülen movement, received one sixteenth of the ad revenue of pro-government Sabah, despite an official circulation number three times higher.
Pınar Türenç, president of Turkish media watchdog The Press Council, told P24 that BIK's greatest controversy is its Press Ethic Law, which “can indeed be a tool for punishing opposition papers.” She stressed that the law allows BIK to cut off a newspaper's advertisements for two months at the most for a given offense, though the ban is often extended without reason.
Allegations of cozy ties between Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the BIK were at least strengthened in February, when former BIK president Mehmet Atalay resigned from his post to seek candidacy with the AKP. He was not nominated by the party to seek election.
BIK did not response to multiple interview requests made by P24 for this article.
An unprecedented protest
Determined to stand against the BIK earlier this year, Yön Gazetesi turned to an unprecedented form of protest.
In January, the paper began replacing its headlines with traditional Turkish recipes, advising readers about the best way to prepare “governor kebab” and a sherbet treat the paper satirically-titled “deputy's finger.”
“At first, people didn't notice what we were doing,” said Tunç. “But after a month and a half people started to talk about what was happening to us.” The protest was a success, convincing a group of local businessmen to sponsor the paper's costs between March and May.
The journalist hopes to get the same boost out of his current election campaign. “I would be lying if I said I'm going to vote for you this election,” one local businessman told Tunç during a visit to his office. “But there may be other ways we can help.”
Few local journalists are so fortunate. In the central Anatolian city of Kayseri, journalist Recep Bulut says he has faced a boycott from BIK ever since opening the newspaper Kayseri Yeni Haber in 2011.
“We're really just trying to stay on our feat at this point,” he said of himself and his seven staff.
The former editor of Kayseri's largest local television channel, Bulut has fiercely criticized local AKP officials in recent years, and claims to have faced 28 law suits and paid thousands of liras in defamation cases over the last 12 months. “The result has been going to the courthouse at least five times a week,” he told P24.
In 2014, he leaked a government audit of substandard construction practices at a Kayseri police station. “The lawsuit brought against me was dismissed almost immediately,” recalls Bulut. “But a year later the case actually continues. City officials have taken it to multiple courts, and I still have to go to court once a month. How can I do my job while I face dozens of cases like this?”
Like Yön Gazetesi, Kayseri Yeni Haber enjoys a number of private supporters. But the funding is precarious, “and if things don't change after this election, I don't see how we'll continue,” Bulut admits.
Local journalists have also faced more overt forms of censorship. Just one week before last year's municipal elections, police in the city of Bolu raided two opposition newspapers that had frequently taken aim at AKP mayoral incumbent Alaadin Yılmaz.
Locals protested in front of their offices the following day, unconvinced by Yılmaz's declaration that the closures were related to licensing violations.
Mehmet Demirci, head editor of the shuttered daily Bolu Havadis, believes that his 2012 report about a bribe-taking mayoral advisor contributed to the official's dismissal on corruption charges in 2013. He points out that he has won all ten of the court cases opened against his paper over the last two years.
But one year after the raid, Demirci's paper remains officially closed, its staff reduced from four to one. “I keep up the internet edition from home. But it's very, very hard just to keep up morale or generate content like this,” he told P24.
The city's other shuttered newspaper, the Bolu Gündem, reopened last year after a 6-month legal battle, he adds.
Turkey 'deserves a more local version of politics'
Back in Batman, Tunç took a seat at his 'election headquarters,' a cafe near the city airport. A gaudy paper-mache jet stuccoed to the wall behind him, he argues that local censorship is keeping the public from debating issues, which impact them most.
With the exception of the peace process, “many national issues are too abstract for people in Batman, so censorship of those issues doesn't resonate,” he said. “But people here care enough about local issues that they'll help finance my newspaper.”
Batman has plenty of local woes to discuss, Tunç says. Though blessed by a construction boom and a two year ceasefire between Ankara and Kurdish insurgents, it suffers from the third worst unemployment rate in the country.
The city lacks major industries, but ranks among Turkey's industrial powerhouses in terms of poor air quality. Ubiquitous coal and wood-fired heaters are to blame, say residents.
In today’s elections, voters are all but certain to brush those issues aside. Much like Turkey's last two elections, this too will serve as a referendum on the ambitions of President Erdogan, and for Kurds, on the state of Ankara's stalled negotiations with Kurdish insurgents.
But Turkey deserves a more local version of politics, insists Tunç. Many across Turkey would agree.
This week, Istanbullites took to social media in protest of a new series of modern, unsightly ships that have begun to replace the city's iconic Bosphorus ferries. Amid the uproar, many observed that the ferries had been proposed one year ago, only to disappear into the shuffle of the national news cycle.
“People feel they're being denied the right to know and discuss local issues,” said Tunç. “But first, you have to have a form of media that can focus on them without being destroyed.”
That seems especially true for the beleaguered Yön Gazetesi, which faces mounting debts and the prospect of future lawsuits. If Batman's newly elected members of parliament don't take notice of his plight, Tunç suspects he will close the paper within the year.
“Then again, who knows, maybe I'll find myself in parliament on June 8th,” he laughs. “I think I could handle that. But when it comes to journalism, I feel under attack every day. I'm not sure I can keep up the fight.”
This article has been produced with the support of Objective Investigative Journalism Programme. Objective is part of a project by, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action. The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Media Action.