Journalism is under attack in many contexts from Hungary to the United States. In Turkey, the situation is not different. Autocracy changed the profession radically and forced some journalists to live in exile. However, transnational online journalism offers greater freedom of expression for those who can no longer take part in journalistic practices in their country but need to continue doing their job at a distance. Technological capabilities allow journalists to engage in cross-border collaboration and to establish transnational solidarity ties. Considering that journalism is inherently language- and context-bound, as it was born and raised within the nation-state, how is it possible to make news from within a foreign context and from a distance?
In 2018, I decided to research journalism as a changing profession in Turkey caught at the intersection of two simultaneous processes: digitalization and authoritarianism. Especially after the putsch in July 2016 in Turkey, independent journalism was criminalized by lawsuits brought against journalists, newspapers, and news websites. In this climate of fear, in 2019, Turkey became the country with the most jailed journalists, ranked second after China. If not imprisoned, many journalists lost their jobs at major media outlets. As the map of media ownership changed drastically, the number of pro-government television channels and newspapers increased rapidly, and they increasingly dedicated their broadcasting and publications to government propaganda. In this context, some journalists decided to continue working with acute self-censorship in pro-government media, while others quit the profession and suffered from unemployment. Meanwhile, foreign news agencies began paying more attention than ever to Turkey. Some unemployed journalists with good networks and foreign language skills took shelter at these foreign agencies. Despite the challenges of this period, new independent newsrooms for digital journalism emerged, although very small in number and struggling both financially and politically. Some journalists working in these newsrooms covered solely criminalized journalists, mostly with the support of non-profit organizations from all over the world.
Some journalists took refuge in Europe and the US, with the hope that they would be able to continue practicing their profession from afar. “I was either going to retire, live in a coastal town, and stop caring about the country at all or leave home behind but continue doing my job,” said a senior journalist, who decided to live in exile. He not only worked as a reporter and editor but also founded many news outlets in Turkey. He had daily conversations with people from all over Turkey to keep the pulse of the news despite his physical distance from the streets. Similar to other journalists in exile, he established news platforms in Germany to make news about Turkey for a Turkish-speaking audience, wherever they were in the world. He would wake up early enough to follow and service news according to Turkey’s time zone. He had no intention to learn German and settle down in Germany because he wanted to go back to Turkey immediately after the government would change. In my research, I talked to journalists like him, who migrated from Turkey to Germany and found themselves in limbo.
Making online news in exile
Germany is not an entirely foreign context for Turkish journalists because of a large Turkish-speaking community, which emerged mainly due to labor migration that took place in the 1960s and has grown since then. Besides citizens with a migrant background, Germany has almost two million Turkish citizens. Accordingly, the German public has an emotional attachment to Turkey because either they or their friends, classmates, or colleagues have familial ties there. Already before the time of my research, there was growing public interest as two German journalists had been arrested in Turkey. At a time when diplomatic relations between two countries were tense, journalism in Turkey suddenly became the most popular topic in Germany, where freedom of expression was highly valued due to the memories of the information manipulation during the Third Reich and DDR. Turning arrested journalists with German passports into symbols of free speech for crowdfunding campaigns, non-profit organizations made some projects possible for exiled journalists. This way, exiled journalists established their news media online. [i]
The possibilities of new technologies help to overcome the difficulties of doing journalism from afar and to take part in the transnational public sphere. In collaboration with their colleagues gathering information from Turkey, exiled journalists service news in diverse forms such as video, sound, image, or text and on various platforms from YouTube and Spotify to Apple and Twitter [ii]. When I asked a German journalist of Turkish descent about her childhood and her decision to be a journalist, she told me about the newspapers that her parents used to read at home in the 1980s with a nostalgic smile on her face. Another German journalist of Turkish descent in his 20s told me that he follows developments in Turkey from the news media of exiled journalists living in Germany.
Journalism as Cultural Translation
The support mechanisms offered by non-profit organizations and short-term funded projects helped migrant journalists to overcome the first shock of migration. However, working together with exiled journalists from Turkey is not always for the sake of professional exchange, but is rather a gesture of solidarity. According to a Turkish-German bilingual journalist, Turkish journalists are not as “efficient” as German journalists due to the difference in journalism training in the two countries. Journalists in Turkey, she says, are stronger in another department: “They have an urge, an impulse to tell their story, and they always have a good story to tell. Moreover, of course, they earn less than we do here. I mean, I think they work with passion.”
Most of the migrant journalists I spoke to are aware of the difference in journalistic standards between Turkey and Germany and agree with the point of having a good story to tell with their passionate devotion to the profession. Yet, they also believe that collaboration is possible and even necessary. “We complain about neoliberal governments,” says an anthropologist who is also a journalist in exile, “but universities and the academic world are as neoliberal as those governments. Both knowledge production and journalistic production are collective processes.” Migrant journalists think that they can add a lot to cross-border journalistic collaboration, where reporters work together on an international story to draw national conclusions using their local knowledge.
A journalist who moved to Germany in 2017 was actively working at all of the news media established by the dissident Turkish journalists because he had enough contacts in Turkey and because information has been pouring to him 24/7 from various sources. He told me that he does his best to follow news from all around the world and is interested in making news for the whole world as a reporter, although he was not fluent in a foreign language. At the time of our interview, he was dreaming about reporting on conflicts in North Africa. When I asked him what he thought about the representation of Turkey by foreign journalists, he told me that he was dissatisfied with how his and his colleagues’ exile story was handled: “[Exile] is perhaps a topic open to romanticizing but at the same time it invites [the journalist] to discuss other underlying issues. This is why, if you are far away from the politics of Turkey, you might easily miss the point.” Feeling distant from German society and language, he also said, “I know that I will never work for the German news media.”
The inner controversy of this journalist between his desires about his profession and his thoughts about the coverage of exile stories reminded me of cultural translation and insider/outsider positions in anthropology, not surprisingly. A German colleague of this journalist was editing his articles while they were working together on a short-term project for a non-profit news organization. She thinks that translating and editing a news article written by a Turkish journalist demand “cultural translation,” because making news does not only mean presenting information but also narrating stories relevant to the daily lives of a particular audience. The project they worked for had twofold aims of showing solidarity with journalists in exile and promoting bilingual news. The political agenda behind the latter underlines the inability of German newsrooms in reflecting the diversity within the society. In other words, cultural translation in news making, in the context of Germany, was a gesture for celebrating bilingualism and a political statement about the politics of migration. [iii]
Focusing on producing news articles with depth and rich cultural interpretation, this slow journalism project gave room for time-consuming tasks of journalistic translation and editing. And yet, slow journalism remains a niche within the larger mass news media industry. The dominant business logic of journalism, which can be observed in non-profit organizations and public broadcasting services as well, makes life harder for migrant journalists. The human rights activist in Berlin says, “This logic makes it even more difficult to integrate because you have to calculate—if you have to correct the text from someone for two hours… In those two hours, you could have written a different text. Someone might ask ‘what did you do in two hours?’ and maybe it is not convincing to say that I helped a colleague in exile, and he has this wonderful contribution.”
Migrant journalists can add a lot to cross-border journalistic collaboration, where reporters work together on an international story to draw national conclusions using their local knowledge. They can also bring depth to the reports on their country, if translated for the local audience culturally. Yet, doing journalism at a distance is still paradoxical under the conditions defined by the news industry. Despite the capabilities of new technology and transnational solidarity, journalism largely remains bound to national borders for those in exile.
[i] There is an extensive native language media for Turkish and Kurdish speakers in Germany. However, dissident journalists I talk about did not work with them for various reasons. For details of the topic: Sarıaslan, Kübra Zeynep. 2020. ‘This Is Not Journalism. Mapping New Definitions of Journalism in German Exile’. ZMO Working Papers, no. 25: 13. https://www.zmo.de/fileadmin/Inhalte/Publikationen/PDFs/workingpapers/zmo_working_paper_25_2020.pdf
[ii] For my discussion on how the new Internet Law aiming to regulate social media in Turkey affects journalists in exile: Sarıaslan, K. Zeynep, and K. Zeynep Sarıaslan. n.d. ‘Clampdown. How Turkey’s New Internet Law Threatens Journalists – Geschichte der Gegenwart’. Accessed 6 April 2021. https://geschichtedergegenwart.ch/clampdown-how-turkeys-new-internet-law-threatens-journalists-2/.
[iii] Cultural translation of news carries other political meanings: Davier, Lucile. 2015. ‘“Cultural Translation” in News Agencies? A Plea to Broaden the Definition of Translation’. Perspectives 23 (4): 536–51. https://doi.org/10.1080/0907676X.2015.1040036.