140Journos: Somewhere between objective news and media activism lies Turkey’s hope for media freedom and pluralism

by Postwoman

According to the Worldwide Press Freedom Index published by the Reporters Without Borders, Turkey has recently ranked 148th, showing a dramatic decline from 99th in 2002. The current government is quite famous for taming the media and smothering opposition, particularly for Prime Minister Erdogan is never afraid of using the country’s harsh defamation laws to intimidate journalists and counter criticism. (Here’s a brilliant analysis of which topics make him most furious at the media). There are almost 100 journalists in prison in addition to more than 600 college students because of Turkey’s anti-terrorism laws that curtail freedom of expression. Add to that the existing regulation of media ownership that puts media owners in all sorts of political and business relationship with the government on many levels. For me, two permanent damages are in the making: 1) (self) censorship is being increasingly normalized for journalists and they have to comply with it in order to do their jobs, and 2) as the media become highly polarized and alternative voices are silenced, objective reporting becomes really scarce – even though it is a highly controversial ideal in itself.

Since January 2012, a new counter-media movement has emerged, called 140journos that provides real-time, objective reporting by independent local volunteers using social media. Four students from Bahcesehir University, none of whom are media and communications students by the way, came together on January 18, 2012 and decided to start an independent alternative news platform as they were bothered by the lack of freedom and plurality in the mainstream media. Rather than what they call “keyboard journalism”, they wanted to be “in the field” and have started live-tweeting political and cultural events that could not find enough space, or any space at all, in the mainstream media. Their first gig was covering the 5th anniversary of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink’s murder when thousands of protesters gathered in Istanbul. Although they called that first gig a test, it was so successful that they were soon followed by influential journalists, academics and received enough attention to continue the project.

When I visited them in their office last month and asked Engin Onder, one of the co-founders of 140journos, what motivated them most, he said they wanted to create a platform that was participatory, live/instant, and most importantly objective. Safa Soydan, another co-founder, said the language of news (either in the mainstream or alternative media) was not inclusive anymore due to the political polarization that has been going on for a while in the country. “It became almost impossible to follow news without hearing the political commentary of content providers”, they said and added, “if the information cannot be shared due to different political views, misinformation spreads rapidly in society”.

Although they do not want to list their project in definitive terms yet (such as citizen journalism that is mostly used to describe their movement), they strongly insist that they are amateurs, not professional journalists. Clearly they are different than established journalists, but also visibly more professional than citizen journalists. Underlying their strong case against being identified as professional journalists is the emphasis they proudly put on their independence: “We are not bound by the (political or economic) interests of media organizations”, they say. They think people they interview feel more comfortable speaking to them and they can choose any topic they want without any fear of censorship.

Another reason why they do not want to turn 140journos into a “professional” journalistic organization is to make sure it is participatory and inclusive enough. “We are not happy to be called citizen journalists, because we do not live up to that description yet”, Engin said. Starting from the first day, they have asked people to send reports, pictures or videos on stories they want to be covered, however they have not managed to turn that into a sustainable collaboration so far. Although they worked with some volunteers from different cities time to time, 140journos is not the user-generated news platform they have imagined it to be yet. Therefore, they are currently working on a new application (for smart phones) that would enable more people to share stories rather than limiting it to Twitter only.

Objective, participatory, diverse, and “unfiltered” journalism is what they want to achieve eventually. Not only have they met up with prominent Turkish media scholars to discuss their project and how to do it better, they have also garnered enough support from influential Turkish journalists so far. Their dream is to create a true anti-mainstream media platform: from the topics they choose or the questions they raise to the tools they use to collect data or present news, they want to turn established journalism (in Turkey) upside down. While doing so, however, the values that drive their radical project are quite familiar: objective, instant reporting that is diverse and open to everyone. Technology gives them the tools they need. They are also passionate and courageous enough to embark on this project, but there are two challenges they have to confront first: to turn 140journos into a sustainable, self-sufficient business model, and to harness more participation from Turkish citizens, who are being exposed to news that is increasingly more skewed towards the interests and demands of the governing elite.

Their latest initiative could be described as a first step to tackle those challenges. On Social Media Day (June 30), 140journos organized an event that showed how digital dualism is an antiquated concept: They invited people to come together around Galata Tower, which was also turned into a Twitter feed for a unique public discussion on nuclear energy. (On a personal note, I could finally say I saw THE public sphere in action, people!) On the one hand, the audience heard the pros and cons of nuclear energy from prominent scientists such as Mehmet Turgut, Necdet Dayday, Tanzer Türker, and Ulvi Adalıoğlu as well as Uygar Ozesmi from Greenpeace Turkey, Ulrike Dufne from Heinrich Böll Stiftung Foundation, and the journalist Ozgur Gurbuz. On the other hand, they sent their own ideas and questions via Twitter using hashtags such as #yestonuclearenergy and #notonuclearenergy. In addition to the deliberation that was going on (offline and online), successfully moderated by famous Turkish journalist Ahu Ozyurt, 140journos showed how many people in the crowd said yes and no to nuclear energy in real time (the majority -91%- said no).

In the months ahead, they need to sustain citizen engagement: get more people enthusiastic enough to share their stories and/or reach the concerned youth in Turkey that needs an outlet for the news that deserves to be heard by the larger public. They also need to collect enough money to start building the 140journos app to make it easier for anyone to contribute to their project. I will keep you updated on how their endeavor goes but in the meantime make sure you follow them on https://twitter.com/140journos.