Persecuted at home, two journalists are bedeviling Turkish authorities from afar
The Turkish government is trying to shut down two journalists who left the country to publish their work. But they're not giving up without a fight.
Last week, journalists Can Dündar and Hayko Bağdat launched a website called Özgürüz that aims to publish independent journalism about Turkey from the relative safety of Germany. It’s a kind of pirate radio for Turkish journalists, informing the public amid a repressive regime that cultivates a hostile press freedom climate.
But just three days after Özgürüz launched, the Turkish government blocked all access to the website in Turkey. Fortunately, Dündar and Bağdat have help getting around the ban.
Özgürüz (Turkish for "we are free") was launched in cooperation with Correctiv, a news organization that calls itself "the first nonprofit investigative newsroom in the German-speaking world."
"We are providing ways to bypass the blocks, for example by mirroring the website on other webpages," said David Schraven, publisher and editor in chief of Correctiv. "Right now, we are viewing the content on 15 to 20 other websites."
Because of the non-traditional ways readers are accessing the content, it’s hard to calculate total traffic on the website, Schraven said. But they can tell the site has a relatively wide reach — some videos are being viewed up to 100,000 times. Within hours after the launch, Özgürüz drew more than 10,000 followers on Twitter. Within a week, that more than tripled, to 35,000.
The site's launch comes at a particularly perilous moment for the Turkish press. Under the leadership of President Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has become one of the worst-rated countries for press freedom, according to a report from Reporters Without Borders. It’s ranked 151st out of 180 countries, behind Pakistan, Russia and South Sudan.
The press freedom climate deteriorated after July 2016, when Erdogan declared a state of emergency after an attempted military coup. The emergency status gives the president the power to bypass Parliament, rule by decree and challenge rulings from Turkey’s Constitutional Court.
Since the emergency status was declared, 131 media outlets, including 45 newspapers, 16 TV channels, three news agencies, 23 radio stations, 15 magazines and 29 publishing houses have been closed by the government, according to Human Rights Watch.
The founders of Özgürüz have faced intense pressure under the repressive Turkish government. Dündar was editor in chief of the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, which revealed Turkey was arming Islamic militants in Syria. Shortly after, Dündar was sentenced to more than five years in prison for leaking state secrets. In 2016, he fled to Germany and began working on Özgürüz.
Bagdat is also in self-exile, having written critically about Erdoğan.
But even from a safe harbor in Germany, the journalists are still threatened.
"It’s not like our journalists are peeing their pants, but they are aware of the danger," Schraven said. "They are currently placed under police protection."
Despite the risks of running a subversive website, the founders of Özgürüz aren’t intimidated.
"They want to break our pencils, close our newspapers, silence our radios and TV stations. But we will not accept it," Dündar wrote in a manifesto announcing the launch.