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140journos: after the coup attempt

An interview with the founder of 140journos about working in Turkey after the coup attempt, and a call to Europeans to provide a platform for the truth. Part two.

Valentin Ihßen Till Gentzsch
8 February 2017
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July 16, 2016 - Turkish people protest against the coup in Ankara, Turkey, late Friday, July 15, 2016. Depo Photos Zuma Press/Press Association. All rights reserved. Since the US presidential elections, the politicization of Facebook and Twitter, or the use of filter bubbles, echochambers and fake news has become a focus for criticism in Germany.[TG1]  In Turkey, however, social media is still regarded as a source of uncensored news. Though Engin Önder may stress that he is not a journalist, his goals are journalistic: he wants the Turkish public to have unrestricted access to news, which is why he founded a network that broadcasts independent news via Twitter.

We first reported on 140journos in June last year. But a lot has changed in Turkey since the night of July 15, and the attempted coup. In the days and weeks that followed, a state of exception was announced, and many members of the opposition party and journalists have been arrested. Following these events, we spoke to Engin again, on Skype, to ask him: what was his experience of these crises? Was it possible for him to continue his project, 140journos, unrestricted? 

TG,VI: Your approach is one of neutral and fact-oriented reporting. But the political polarisation in Turkey is even more extreme than when we spoke last in July. How have you handled it?

Engin Önder: It has definitely become more difficult. We are still trying to concentrate on the facts. But by now, we increasingly have to turn to institutions for information to reduce the risk of spreading conspiracy theories. In reports concerning the coup we primarily used court statements. If there is any doubt, we state clearly that the facts are as yet unclear, and that there are several points of view.

TG,VI: Since the state of exception was announced, many critical voices have been suppressed and members of the opposition arrested. Were you affected by this?

Engin Önder: To date, our organization has not been subjected to censorship, political investigation or legal proceedings. We have been continuing as before. What we have noticed, though, is a decreasing diversity amongst our contributors. That is a real problem here at the moment – the tension is palpable. Noticeably fewer people send us material. Many feel intimidated by what is going on in Turkey, they are scared, or resigned. Those sending 140journos information initially were liberals, tending towards the left. On average, those informing us now are much more conservative. That restricts the perspectives of our reports.

Because of this, we have begun to use information from news agencies, which we verify and “translate” into more neutral language. At the moment, around 90 percent of our reports concern court proceedings.

TG,VI: How do you account for the fact that 140journos hasn’t been directly affected by the repression?

Engin Önder: Our use of language is all-important. We try to avoid terms that imply any fixed political position. If, for instance, we are reporting on Fethulla Gülen’s organisation “Hizmet“, we don’t speak of a terrorist organisation, as the government and government-influenced media do. Nor do we want to use the jargon of the opposition, who tend to report what fits their version of the story. That is why we try to use neutral names when reporting on polarising topics and quotations on controversies, as well as avoiding one-sided adjectives. That protects us, because no one can accuse us of being biased. In contrast to most journalists in Turkey, we don’t do politics at 140journos – so we are not part of the opposition. But we pay the price: journalism isn’t sexy without lurid headlines.

TG,VI: You always stress the importance of transparency at 140journos – but how do you ensure the safety of your contributors given the current situation?

Engin Önder: It is important to us that our way of working is transparent and open to everyone. Anyone whom we invite online can come to visit our news rooms. We discuss most editorial issues there. To date, we have always published the names of the contributors of big stories. Given the current political situation, however, we would be willing to publish news anonymously should anyone be endangered.

TG,VI: What happened at 140journos on the night of July 15, when parts of the Turkish military attempted a coup against Erdogan’s government?

Engin Önder: We had the highest number of Twitter Impressions since the founding of 140journos – 110 million in one day. Usually, we reach 55 million a month. At that point, we already had a large network of contributors, so we were the most reliable source of information in the country.

The media didn’t dare to report critically; they were self-censoring. President Erdogan and vice president Yildirim later praised this behaviour. It was said that the media had done good work, and not spread panic. That shows quite clearly what the Turkish government sees as good journalism. 140journos, on the other hand, really did do good journalism. You can see that on our website: every report was retweeted thousands of times. We kept the people informed.

TG,VI: You use Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp to spread news. Did you have problems with internet censorship on the night of the coup?

Engin Önder: No. There was a misunderstanding between several governmental bodies and internet – and the mobile network providers. A high-ranking Turkcell manager informed us that government orders to shut down the internet were ignored because it was assumed that they had been issued by those involved in the coup. That is why news was allowed to spread on social media. Social media was blocked later in November. But we still had access to Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook via VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). A day later, the government had blocked the best known VPNs and IP-addresses. That was the first time that had happened.

TG,VI:  So how do you expect journalism to develop in Turkey?

Engin Önder: Established journalism has a big problem. Big news companies working in their comfort zone are a thing of the past. Journalists have to form new alliances, to work independently, anonymously. There will soon be more internet journalism, simply because it is easier to organize. But in any case it will become increasingly difficult to investigate, as access to information is scarce. This is because many people are scared – we need to find new sources. 140journos is undergoing transformations too. We need to change our structures, we can no longer depend on people sending us information.

TG,VI:  What then do you expect, say, of EU-politicians, European journalists and civilians?

Engin Önder: Two things, a critique and a plea. Turkey is not in a good place at the moment. It is so clear that I don’t think it needs further explanation. European media doesn’t always report correctly – that is probably due to the rise of populist movements. Maybe their political perspective prevents journalists from reporting objectively, even concerning Erdogan. I ask for better reporting. Europe needs to be better informed about the current circumstances in Turkey.

If one depends on rumours, which happens all too often, it doesn’t come across as credible, fuelling anti-European sentiments in Turkey. European media should give Turkish journalists the opportunity to publish their work, as the German media has done for Can Dündar [the convicted former chief editor of the Turkish Paper "Cumhuriyet“].

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