ISTANBUL — The smartphone's video camera zigzags through the crowd. Amid a joyful brouhaha punctuated by applause, the young videomaker captures the first smiles and the excited faces, still stunned by the good news. "Asli Erdogan, Necmiye Alpay and Zana Kaya are free!," the journalist comments as she films the scene.
The date was Dec. 29, 2016, and a judge in the Turkish city of Caglayan, had just granted bail to the three writers accused of spreading "terror propaganda." The video, almost surrealistic in a country marred by censorship, is broadcast live via Periscope on HaberSIZsiniz, the youngest of a new generation of online television channels. It's a mini cultural revolution for Turkey, where independent media are being blacked-out as part of President Erdogan's authoritarian drift.
"With the serial closures of media outlets, our area of expression is more and more restricted," says Candan Yildiz, the reporter who captured the scene in the courtroom. "We've had to come up with new ways to inform, to find new back roads. The web has become our new agora."
A few days later, we meet her again at the Caribou Coffee, next to the pier. The emerald blue Bosphorus reaches out to the fishermen and the seagulls. A safe breathing space in the aftermath of the Reina nightclub on New Year's Eve and the political chaos that's been shaking up the country since the failed coup of July 15.
The 42-year-old journalist wears green glasses, the color of hope. She's previously worked for IMC, one of the dozens of opposition television networks that have been reduced to silence since last summer. More recently she helped found HaberSIZsiniz. The name reads like a play on words: It can mean either "You are without news" or "You are the news." The logo represents a chained television set.
"We launched HaberSIZsiniz two months ago to defend the population's right to be informed," Yildiz says. "Since last summer, 177 media outlets have been closed down and more than 100 journalists have been jailed. Most of the authorized networks speak with one voice. It's crucial we continue to do our job, not to let Turkey turn into a news black hole."
The project kicked off in late October with a first broadcast from a café in Ankara. Since then, they've been using all sorts of places as makeshift television studios: headquarters of independent associations that support the operation, the offices of the newspaper Cumhuriyet (also in the authorities' sights), courtrooms as in the case of Asli Erdogan's trial, and even sometimes in the street. The unconventional approach allows HaberSIZsiniz to tackle topics avoided by the pro-government press: women's rights, attacks on freedom of speech, the hunting down of opponents, etc.
Curled up in a former photography studio in Levent, Istanbul's business district, Medyascope is the leader of these new cyber-television networks. The ground floor, shrouded in a scent of coffee, has an open-space arrangement, with one studio equipped with two cameras on tripods, an open kitchen and a newsroom. The floor above has a few offices, including that of editor-in-chief Rusen Cakir, an investigative journalism veteran. When he launched the organization a year ago, thanks to donations from abroad, the idea was to create an alternative media outlet using new technologies. With time, it's become a default refuge.
"It's one of the rare media outlets where you can work in total freedom," says 28-year-old Burak Tatari, one of Medyascope's 20 journalists.
Turkish journalists — Photo: HaberSIZsiniz
A few months ago, the young man walked away from the magazine Tempo after one of his investigative pieces about the southeastern part of the country — where security forces are fighting against the guerilla warfare waged by the Kurdish PKK forces — was shelved. His superiors found the topic too touchy.
"My article focused on civilians, including children affected by war," he says. "In no way did it side with the PKK. Which goes to show how much the media self-censor for fear of being accused of 'supporting terrorism.'"
Burak now hosts a daily news show that doesn't elude any topic, no matter how "sensitive" it might be. Among others, that includes the Turkish intervention in Syria, the economic crisis and the Constitutional reform. Ironically, he finds it very easy to invite renowned experts, especially when they're "blacklisted" by the official media.
"Here, all contributors are welcome. Unlike big TV networks, we can't afford to pay for their taxi. But we offer them coffee and, most importantly, the possibility to express themselves!" he says, laughing. A successful recipe with some 20,000 viewers daily for Medyascope, whose Twitter page has close to 50,000 followers.
Like HaberSIZsiniz or Medyascope, WeBiz aims at filling in the silences and gaps of the official Turkish media. It was founded by 38-year old Funda Tasun, formerly of IMC (like Yildiz). "To inform is to resist," she says.
Since its creation a few weeks ago, WeBiz has been accommodated by a small advertising agency, behind the famous Istiklal Avenue. Their studio is little more than a broom closet: one camera, a table, two chairs and a flat screen with the logo. "This is where, a few days ago, we received Basak, the wife of Selahattin Demirtas," Tasun says proudly.
Demirtas heads the pro-Kurdish HDP, a left-wing opposition party, and has been imprisoned for two months. For his wife, the interview was a golden opportunity to speak freely. It was seen live by 14,000 viewers and has been spreading on social media since then.
Tasun doesn't like the word "refuge" and she prefers the term "platform" or "discussion forum" to define this new type of journalistic format. "A refuge would suggest we feel safe. That's not the case," she says. "We know we can be at risk at any moment."
In a country where the authorities are indiscriminately targeting Fethullah Gulen supporters, pro-Kurdish activists and critics, the repression knows no limits. And neither does intimidation.
When they're not forced to close down, dissident media outlets are submitted to an online filter, and many struggle financially because they have difficulties selling advertising spaces to increasingly fearful publicists. To continue their work, these information guerilla fighters — as they call one another — have to take on part-time jobs to pay the bills.
"The good thing about it is we don't depend on anybody. Paradoxically, we've never been freer," Candan Yiliz says.
Her only reservation has to do with her audience. "We're attracting new visitors every day. But compared to the overall Turkish population, that's nothing. Is our work really having an impact on the public?" she asks before repeating HaberSIZsiniz's mantra. "As long as our cell phones aren't taken away we will continue to inform."