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Turkish Journalists Face a Rough Time Plying Their Trade

Government crackdowns on the press have led to rising unemployment in the profession, with many turning to freelance work

Ensar Tekin, 39, has worked as a journalist for over 20 years. He has a Ph.D. in urban studies. But he still struggles to make ends meet.

Tekin worked as a video journalist for the state broadcaster, and previously was a correspondent based in Israel for Turkish news agencies. He says he left his job because of the pressure to conform to what he says was a political agenda.

With few other options, he went freelance and now writes for Turkish newspapers and produces for foreign outlets.

“During these five years, it was really hard to survive,” he told The Media Line.

Tekin says many Turkish journalists have a hard time establishing themselves as freelancers because there is little available knowledge on how to do so, but also a lack of collaboration among the local press community.

A program that launched this month is hoping to help Turkey’s unemployed journalists get into freelancing.

Media for Democracy (M4D) has set up office space for journalists, including a studio and conference room. Reporters will be paid to write stories that appear on a national journalist association’s website and receive grants to set up their own websites and blogs.

The organization’s head, Yusuf Kanli, said the project was five years in the making and came to reality after getting funding from the European Union.

Kanli said that almost 25 percent of the country’s journalists were unemployed, adding that he wanted to help those affected by worsening levels of press freedom.

“We have to stand up against it, and that’s what we are doing,” he told The Media Line.

The Committee to Protect Journalists stated in December there were at least 68 journalists behind bars in Turkey. On Thursday, six former employees of the leading opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet were sent to prison. Six more are appealing their sentences.

A total of 14 journalists and staff with Cumhuriyet have been charged with terrorism, something they deny. It is one of the most high-profile cases against the press in Turkey.

Last week, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called Turkey “the world’s most prolific jailer of professional journalists” in its annual index on press freedom. The country was ranked 157 out of 180, placing it below Iraq.

RSF’s representative in Turkey, Erol Onderoglu, said he expected many journalists to be imprisoned this year because their trials were over.

Onderoglu himself is on trial. He is accused of spreading terrorist propaganda and faces up to seven years in prison, although he believes a sentence of about one year is more likely. He was arrested in June 2016 after guest-editing a Kurdish newspaper.

“The moment I was handcuffed at the courthouse, for me it was quite dramatic,” he told The Media Line. “I fought for more than two decades for EU rapprochement, for a better [position] for my profession, and that’s the moment I said, ‘Under this government… you don’t have your place anymore.’”

Onderoglu’s arrest came at an especially bad time, one month before a failed coup attempt that ushered in a greater crackdown on the press, including the closure of 130 media outlets. Other outlets have been bought up by allies of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Last week, it was announced the presidency itself would take control of the state news agency, which already largely follows the government line.

Last month, Turkey refused accreditation to three German journalists without explanation, but eventually backed down after pressure from Berlin, an important ally. The situation is much graver for local journalists, who are more susceptible to Turkey’s legal system.

Erdogan’s critics argue that he has undermined the independence of the country’s courts, but the Turkish government insists the judiciary is not politically influenced.

While most western journalists eventually have been freed after pressure from their countries, Turkish journalists have little recourse. Onderoglu questions whether even the EU, a vital trading partner for Turkey, can have much influence over press freedom within the country.

“I don’t know if the EU still has leverage on this issue,” he said. “The relationships between countries are no longer based on the respect of fundamental human rights, but on mutual interests.”

For Tekin, the political limitations for the Turkish press have followed him into his freelance career. He says that when he pitches stories, he often gets initial interest, but when higher-level editors get involved, he is stonewalled.

He suspects this is due to not adhering to the outlet’s political stance.

“I’m not an ideological person,” he told The Media Line, “but I know the truth.”