Istanbul (AFP) – It’s not an obvious location for a media organisation. A gritty area dominated by car repair workshops in the backstreets of Istanbul. There’s no sign outside — just a photocopied sheet of paper pinned to the door requesting silence: “Broadcast in Progress”.
Welcome to the headquarters of Turkish broadcaster Medyascope, an almost three-year-old alternative voice in an increasingly constricted media landscape in Turkey and an example of what new media can offer even in tough circumstances.
The door swings open to reveal a surprisingly standard television studio with a desk and coloured background. A team of young editors are glued to their laptops around a large table, whispering excitedly, preparing the next broadcast.
Medyascope, which was founded in 2015 by leading Turkish journalist Rusen Cakir, does not broadcast through satellite let alone terrestrial TV, but rather via new media like Facebook, YouTube and Periscope.
Every weekday it presents several hours of live debate from voices across the political spectrum with a freedom increasingly absent from the major news channels in Turkey under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
– ‘No other channels left’ –
Awarded the Free Media Pioneer Award by the International Press Institute (IPI) in 2016, its importance has grown as ownership changes and increasingly adverse conditions for reporters have limited the media spectrum, encouraging prominent Turkish journalists to join the channel and frustrated viewers to watch it.
And with Turkey heading for presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24 at a time when journalists complain of a lack of pluralism in traditional media dominated by coverage of Erdogan, its voice is ever more important.
“There are no other channels left in Turkey, where journalists like myself, with a mainstream media background, could work today,” said presenter Isin Elicin, formerly a prominent anchor on the NTV news channel.
“The mainstream media are not broadcasting news in the way that people need to be informed. They look for sources that do alternative but independent, objective journalism. And they find us,” she said.
Elicin, once a familiar face on mainstream Turkish TV, insisted it was essential that alternative media did not become identified as pro-opposition.
“The main goal of Medyascope is to do journalism. It’s not the journalists’ job to do opposition. It’s our guests who make the comments,” she said.
– ‘Extending government grip’ –
Just ahead of the snap elections announcement, Turkey’s media world was struck in April by the thunderbolt-like announcement that the largest media group, Dogan Media Group, was being sold by Dogan Holding to its rival, Demiroren Group.
The Dogan Media Group owns some of the country’s biggest media brands like the Hurriyet daily and CNN Turk news channel. While not seen as outright opposition media, they were regarded as bastions of independent journalism.
But analysts have seen the takeover as a clear attempt by the government to exercise control over these media. Demiroren Group’s chairman Erdogan Demiroren is considered close to the president, while his son, Yildirim, runs the Turkish Football Federation.
With the sale approved by Turkey’s competition authority, the changes have come fast at Hurriyet and CNN Turk, which have seen an exodus of talent, with prominent CNN Turk anchor Ahu Ozyurt the latest to go.
In an op-ed in Hurriyet, Erdogan Demiroren appeared to indicate change was needed, saying media should “stay away from destructiveness and return to its stance of constructive criticism.”
Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, said increasing control over the media was one of several instruments used by the government to ensure victory in the elections seen as a watershed for Turkey.
“Favourable sales of media groups to government-friendly businesses is extending the government’s grip on the press,” he said.
The furore over the acquisition of Dogan Media is nothing new.
The Milliyet and Vatan dailies had already been sold to Demiroren by Dogan in 2011, while the Sabah daily, once an independently-minded newspaper, is now an unashamedly pro-government title following ownership changes in 2007.
– ‘Emerged out of a necessity’ –
Some independent titles do remain, such as the anti-Erdogan Cumhuriyet and the leftist BirGun. But the price can be high and 13 staff of Cumhuriyet were convicted on terror offences in April although they remain free pending appeal.
In a sign of the thirst for news from such sources, top Turkish journalists have amassed colossal numbers of social media followers who enjoy their sometimes piquant views — the popular host of Fox TV’s evening news show, Fatih Portakal, has more than 5.95 million Twitter followers.
While private and state networks tend to broadcast every word of Erdogan’s speeches from greetings to farewells, those of main opposition candidate Muharrem Ince are usually cut, while opposition nationalist Meral Aksener is barely shown at all.
Burak Tatari, another anchor at Medyascope and formerly of weekly magazine Tempo, said that audiences in Turkey were failing to find access to the information they needed in mainstream media, with interview subjects and material filtered.
He said that the main limit on Medyascope’s growth was financing, with advertising difficult to attract and the bulk of its revenues coming from grants from international foundations.
“Medyascope has emerged out of a necessity,” he said. “We are trying to do here what the mainstream media should do.”