Reporting from Turkey: Journalism Under Attack, Politics Based on Fear

Cüneyt Özdemir discusses how to report the truth when facts are 'fake'

Cüneyt Özdemir discusses his documentary on the 2016 Turkish coup attempt and the challenges for Turkish journalism. Video by Julie Schoonmaker

After years of watching the muzzling of civil society in Turkey, attacks on independent journalism and the use of fear as a political tool, Turkish journalist Cüneyt Özdemir looks at current events in the United States with a sense that “this is like watching the same movie twice dubbed into another language because we know how it goes.”

“Today as Turks watch what is unfolding is the U.S., we have mocking smiles on our faces,” Özdemir said this week at a talk Monday on Duke’s campus. “This is because the recent events occurring in the U.S. are similar to the scenario that we have been living over the last decade.

“There is an uncanny similarity between [Turkish] President Erdoğan and President Trump and the Republican administration in the U.S. We are stunned by how much the stories of populism, nationalism and utilitarian rule resemble each other.”

An investigative journalist for CNN Türk, Özdemir currently broadcasts from New York. He spent this week in residency at Duke where he met with faculty and students, spoke at three public events and premiered his documentary about the 2016 Turkish coup attempt.

Arya Deniz, Ali Soyupak and Kerim Algul, all Duke undergraduate students from Turkey, pose for a selfie with CNN Türk journalist Cüneyt Özdemir Thursday. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography

“It’s never been easy to be a journalist in Turkey,” said Özdemir, who has worked as a TV reporter, producer and anchorman for more than two decades.  With its history of strong military influence even in times of civilian power, journalists in Turkey have often faced harassment, censorship and jailing when they got too close to sensitive topics or too loud in opposition.

But over the past few years of Recep Erdoğan’s 14-year-rule, the situation has become more dangerous, Özdemir said. A charismatic populist leader of the leading Islamist party in Turkey, Erdoğan started to challenge independent journalists and the facts they were reporting.

But some of the threats come from the media owners themselves, who Özdemir said often depend upon government contracts provided to them by Erdoğan in return for positive coverage.

“A decade ago there were 700 columnists and dozens of TV news channels. Today there are 700 columnists and dozens of TV news channels, but the people working at them have all been replaced [with Erdoğan supporters]. If I wanted to make a comfortable living and be popular in the capital, I could, but I would rather report the truth.

“Erdoğan looks to marginalize the mainstream media,” said Özdemir, whose 6 million Twitter followers makes him one of the most popular sources for information in Turkey. “The language is very similar to what I hear today in the United States.  They say the mainstream media reports fake news, that they are the opposition party and their commentators are liars. You start seeing more conspiracy theories reported as facts. Events don’t just happen; words like ‘mastermind’ are used or everything is attributed to the CIA.”

And government opponents are affected because they don’t believe anything the government says. Space shrinks on both sides for the type of independent, fact-based reporting that Özdemir does.

“If they are successful, it’s not going to matter whatever the mainstream media writes,” he said. “This situation becomes extremely polarized.”

There’s another key consequence of a corrupted political discourse, Özdemir noted: “Fear has been one of the main actors in Turkish politics for a long time.  Turks fear Kurds, Kurds fear Turks, Armenians fear Turks and Kurds. One Muslim sect fears the other. Christians fear Muslims.

“Why can’t we kill this fear? I think the main reason is that our laws have failed to make them secure. People don’t believe the constitution and laws protect them anymore.  Secondly, the fear comes from our traditions and living styles. It becomes a habit. After a long time, it’s a hard thing to grow up with security.

“The third reason is economic.  If you feel economically secure, you start losing your fears. But the Turkish economy hasn’t been very well for a long time. It’s not bad but nobody’s sees a beautiful future.

“With all these factors, you start living with your fears, and it damages your soul and the country’s soul.”

Cüneyt Özdemir discusses the situation at the Middle East at a presentation at the Rubenstein Library. Photo by Julie Schoonmaker

On July 15, 2016, a surprise military coup attempt -- the subject of Özdemir’s documentary shown Thursday night on campus -- was launched by some officers against the government. It quickly failed. 

The president used the failed coup to crack down not just on the military but on all political opponents, including journalists. Özdemir said he was targeted by politicians in public statements and by Internet trolls who created more than 100 fake Facebook pages in his name.

Özdemir’s residency is the second of Duke’s Journalists of the MENA Region series; Tunisian journalist and activist Amna Guellali took part this past fall.

Journalists are well positioned to explain the often confusing geopolitics and culture of the Middle East, said Erdağ Göknar, director of the Duke Middle East Studies Center, who organized Özdemir’s visit. “They bring first-hand experience and witness that can’t be delivered by a textbook or a lecture alone.”

The series is supported by the Duke Middle East Studies Center; the Journalism and New Media Initiative of the Franklin Humanities Institute; the Center for French and Francophone Studies; and the Duke Office of Public Affairs and Government Relations.

Özdemir met with Turkish students at Duke on Thursday. “He is one of the few honest journalists still working in Turkey,” said one Turkish student. “We all follow what he says on social media.”

Despite the gloomy situation for journalists and civil society in Turkey and elsewhere, Özdemir gave the students a message of hope. On several recent issues, the Turkish people have shown vigor in defending issues important to them.

“I always have a hope. We always live in the same circumstances in the past. We have strong secular traditions in Turkey. It’s not easy to cut those traditions. Secularism is a way of life for us.

“Mustafa Ataturk [the founder of the modern Turkish state] remains one of the most important figures in Turkey, and it’s not easy to erase what he did from the hearts of the Turkish people. It will take some time, but we have to hope change will come.”