What refugee journalists in Turkey need

REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Media workers gather in protest of the pressure on free speech and journalism in Istanbul, Turkey, June 29, 2021. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

21st December 2021

Editor's note: This paper, by a Journalist Fellow who prefers not to be named for their own safety, chronicles the struggles of journalists who sought refuge in Turkey. 

In my experience, there are not many journalists in exile who are willing or able to speak frankly about their displacement – certainly not among the Middle Eastern journalists who fled to Turkey following the Arab Spring. 

The stakes are too high: the fear of reprisal, the loss of visa status, the threat of extradition to unsafe homelands. 

I know these fears intimately. I left Egypt for the safety of Turkey, and have since resettled in the UK. When I received a place on the Reuters Institute's Journalist Fellowship through the Journalists Under Pressure Fund, I knew I wanted to tell the stories of other journalists in exile. 

So I asked my network of journalists to take part in an anonymous questionnaire about their experience of seeking refuge in Turkey. Thirty-one filled in the questionnaire. Of those who found work (which is illegal on a tourist visa), 90% said they had received no work permit and no work contract. 

Seeking employment in this way left them open to extortion: 83% said they had been subjected to professional blackmail and 78% said they had faced material extortion in the form of unpaid overtime, docked pay, or heavier workloads. What pay they did receive was often minimal: 71% said they were not earning enough to cover their expenses and 43% said they couldn’t afford to pay for training to improve their journalistic skills. Under these immense pressures, 37% said they had left the field of journalistic work. 

Resettlement and integration has not been easy for most: 69% said they had experienced discrimination in Turkish society based on their race or immigration status. All of this has had a huge impact on mental health: 74% said they had experienced depression and loneliness, while 49% admitted having had suicidal thoughts.  

An exodus to Istanbul 

In September 2011, just shy of a year after a wave of anti-dictatorial protests swept the Middle East and North Africa, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then Prime Minister and now President of Turkey, began his Arab Spring Tour. 

Touting Turkey and its booming economy as the model of a successful Islamic democracy, he was hailed as a hero in Egypt and Tunisia. He told a crowd gathered on Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli, Libya: "Turkey will fight with you until you take your victory. You proved to all the world that nothing can stand in the way of what the people want." A Pew Research study published in July 2012 named Erdogan the most popular leader in the region, far ahead of the next favourite, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

So when the revolutions turned into counter-revolutions and civil wars, it was this image of Erdogan’s progressive Turkey that many journalists – and even whole media houses – thought they were fleeing to. They came from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and more – thousands of journalists who had fallen foul of shifting power centres.

There are no official figures to be referenced here. Most journalists in Turkey have continued to work without official paperwork. But by my own estimation, in consultation with various organisations related to Arab media professionals in Turkey, there were still as many as 2,000 Arab journalists and 13 media outlets operating out of Turkey in 2021. 

Of course, geography plays a role too: Turkey shares borders with Syria and Iraq. Obtaining a tourist visa to enter is relatively simple for most Arab passport holders. Being an Islamic country, many thought it would be easy to integrate culturally into Turkish society. 

Erdoğan wept

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was ousted by the military in July 2013. A month later, Erdoğan went on live television and wept openly for his former ally while a letter by Muslim Brotherhood politician Muhammad al-Baltagi was being read. In the months that followed, Brotherhood-supporting news networks were welcomed into Turkey. Al-Sharq, Mekameleen, Watan and others set up satellite television operations out of Istanbul with funding from abroad. 

The hospitality was not limited to the news media. Politicians and activists aligned with Morsi were welcomed into the Turkish “safe house”, too. But if Erdoğan hoped the Muslim Brotherhood and its media would use their time in Turkey to forge a path for return to power that he could use as a political card, he must have been sorely disappointed. 

Over the next five years, the move to Turkey exacerbated rifts in the political movement, diluted the news agenda, fuelled fierce competition over scarce funding, and exposed the indecent treatment of employees and cronyism. 

Responsibility for the Brotherhood exiles was handed off to the Ministry of Interior. Most journalists who moved across with their news channels were granted one-year tourist visas. To date, they must continue to apply to the Turkish government for renewal each year. 

A few influential opposition leaders were granted permanent residence or Turkish nationality. When news of this favouritism leaked, it created even more rifts. Attempts to rectify the situation by presenting a list of 700 media workers who should also be granted special citizenship made matters even worse when 50 names were “forgotten” from the list. AsTurkey’s experiment in the exertion of soft power failed, relations with important Arab leaders soured as a result – not least in Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

The reaction in Egypt

On 16 May 2018, during the Fifth National Youth Conference, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi threatened opposition TV channels abroad and journalists working there, saying “anybody speaking against us on TV channels abroad will be held accountable”.

His call was picked up and echoed by media outlets still operating in Egypt – sometimes to alarming degrees. In an episode of his talk show 90 Minutes, on September 12, 2018, Mohamed El-Baz, chairman of the Board of Directors of Al-Dustour newspaper, declared of talk show hosts abroad:  “Any Egyptian who finds Moataz Matar or Ayman Nour or Muhammad Nasir should kill them. And if you would like to accuse me of inciting murder, oh yes, I am.”

In July 2019, Al Jazeera journalist Magdy Aziz reported that documents from the Egyptian Ministry of Defence had been intercepted, namely reports on the media compiled by the military between 2016 and 2017 about what the international press and opposition channels now based in Turkey were saying about Egypt and whether any of these should be considered a threat to security.

Each report included an analysis: who spoke for how long about what? And did they consider their coverage of the Egyptian president and army negative, positive or neutral? The ministry’s reports recognised that, despite the ban, opposition channels were still managing to sway public opinion in Egypt. 

It’s easy to see why the opposition channels in Turkey, for all their faults, were getting under El-Sisi’s skin. They were creating a careful archive of human rights violations committed under his rule: gathering video and audio over an eight-year period of the arrest of activists, extrajudicial executions and other crimes. 

One eminent example is the #SisiLeaks published in 2014 and 2015, the authenticity of which the Egyptian government continues to deny. In one of the leaked audios, a voice said to be El-Sisi’s can be heard declaring his resentment toward the Gulf countries, revealing information about arms deals, and alluding to corruption. 

While editors in Egypt were ordered to attend monthly “training” at Nasser Military Academy on how to report on the government, TV channels in Turkey were documenting corruption of the military establishment and its intrusion into the civil sector. They told the “other side” of stories like Nahda Dam, the murder of the Italian researcher Giulio Regeni or the islands of Tiran and Sanafir.

By September 2020, El-Sisi was so riled by the coverage that he brought it to the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly saying: “It is unfortunate that the international community continues to turn a blind eye to the a handful of countries who support terrorists, whether financially or by providing them with safe havens, as well as media and political platforms.”

The unravelling

Back in Turkey, Erdoğan’s play at being a uniting progressive force for the Middle East began to unravel when trouble in his own backyard demanded attention: the 2013 Gezi Park protests grew into 5,000 rallies attended by 3.5 million Turkish people who wanted more civil rights, press freedoms, and a return to secularism. Erdoğan responded unsympathetically, telling protestors: “Where they gather 20, I will get up and gather 200,000 people. Where they gather 100,000, I will bring together one million from my party.” 

He grew increasingly authoritarian in his stance. By 2016, one third of all imprisoned journalists, media workers and executives in the world were in Turkey’s prisons, with the vast majority waiting to be brought to trial. The July 2016 attempted coup d'état, and the state of emergency decree that followed it, led to the closure of 180 media outlets. By 2017 Amnesty International went so far as to proclaim “the death of journalism in Turkey”. In 2018, the Committee to Protect Journalists said that Turkey, China, and Egypt were responsible for more than half of those jailed around the world for the third year in a row.

With a new taste of civil unrest and the news media covering it, Erdoğan began to sound more like El-Sisi in his complaints: “Our country has faced a serious unfair stance and double standard. The ones who burned down the streets have been presented as peaceful protestors by international media outlets who were broadcasting live for 24 hours," the president told the TRT World Forum last December.

Throughout the same period, it was becoming clear to the Turkish President that he may have bet on the wrong horse when he allowed the Egyptian opposition media to operate without getting licenses or paying taxes or any of the other conditions that applied to Turkish institutions or foreign media outlets operating there. 

In my own experience, and that of other Egyptian refugee journalists that I’ve spoken to, staff at these channels were working without contracts, work permits, health insurance or any other support required by Turkish labour bureaus. No one monitored where their funding came from or where it went. There was no supervision, no accountability, and no documentation. 

The early intention of granting such extraordinary freedoms for channels to operate without oversight may have originally been to make it easier for refugee journalists to do their work. But as the years progressed, it resulted in impossible conditions for refugee journalists who had no authority through which to seek support or redress.

Worse off than the Egyptian journalists are those from other Arab countries – particularly Syrians, who are not allowed to travel inside Turkey without obtaining a travel permit. In June 2019, Syrian journalist Hussein al-Taweel was arrested in Reyhanli while trying to get a temporary residence permit and deported to Syria. In the same month, journalist Obeida al-Omar was arrested despite having a temporary residency and forced to sign a statement he did not understand saying he would voluntarily return to Syria. Journalist Yarub al-Dalyman was arrested and deported on 9 July of the same year, when he was about to obtain temporary residency. He was beaten and deported a month later. I have seen no official reports about their wellbeing today. Download my full paper to read the stories of five other refugee journalists that I profiled as part of my project as a Journalist Fellow. 

What is the fate of the 700?

By 2020, Turkey was being described by Freedom House as having had one of the worst declines in freedom. During the pandemic, journalists were called in for questioning about their stories and social media posts, at times charged by the Cyber Crimes Unit of the Interior Ministry for “making propaganda for a terrorist organisation”, including by “sharing provocative coronavirus posts”. 

The tide of democratic progress has turned so radically in Turkey that a country that was an appealing safe haven for Arab journalists only a decade ago is now one from which its own native journalists have fled or considered fleeing to avoid imprisonment. Abdullah Bozkurt, former editor-in-chief of the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman, told the United Nations Human Rights Committee: “Exile has become a dream for Turkish journalists, away from the constraints of the government.”

These and other human rights criticisms are dismissed by Turkish officials who maintain that they are on track with their “human rights action plan”. Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun told pro-AKP outlet Daily Sabah that assessments on Turkey's human rights record were “meaningless” if they “do not properly address the long-standing terrorism threats” inside the country and along its borders. 

Meanwhile, diplomatic relations between Turkey and Egypt have begun to thaw. In the clearest sign of this, Egyptian stations operating in Turkey were asked to tone down their anti-Sisi rhetoric in March. In April, a talk show host from El-Sharq satellite channel – known for his outspoken criticism of Cairo – announced he would take an “unlimited leave”. Moataz Matar said he was not forced by the Turkish government or the channel to take leave, but added: “I will come back when I am able to tell the truth on El-Sharq again as I always have,” he added.

The owner of El-Sharq, Ayman Nour, told Al Jazeera that talks with Turkish officials about easing up on criticism of El-Sisi had been civil. “No diktats were issued,” he said. Presidential advisor Yassin Aktay told the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in London: "Turkey will not arrest anyone or hand anyone over.”

A Turkish delegation visited Egypt on 5 May 2021 for two days of talks about mending ties.

Many Egyptian opposition journalists in Turkey believe all of this is paving the way for their eventual shutdown, possible loss of Turkish settlement status, or – worst-case scenario – extradition to Egypt. If these channels are shut down, the implications for 700 journalists and their families would be monumental. 

What happens next will be seen in the months to come, but what is clear is that eight years after the great exodus to Istanbul, any dream that Arab refugee journalists from Egypt, Syria and Libya had of finding progressive values and human rights there are dashed. Many now realise that they were just pawns in a game by several governments to exert their control in the region. 

Next steps

Refugee journalists need an action plan in place – steps that can be followed before situations deteriorate and it becomes too late to intervene. When political turmoil forces journalists to flee their home countries, international organisations should put pressure on host countries to expedite visas and travel documentation for them to safe havens. 

Host countries who invite entire platforms to relocate as a diplomatic strategy – as was the case of Turkey – should be pressured to legalise the employment status of journalists or grant work permits. Moreover, there should be a designated legal entity that journalists can turn to if their employment rights are violated. 

There should also be careful monitoring of media organisations that move in this way: they should be required to gain a license to operate in the same way that other networks are required to, and that license should be contingent on the disclosure of financial records, and adherence to fair labour practices. And if a country grants its own journalists press cards, refugee journalists should be afforded the same privileges and protections. 

Other measures that can be taken to ensure refugee journalists are kept safe are measures that should be taken for all refugees:

  • Provide temporary housing in safe, central areas until they are resettled
  • Provide a hotline for reporting threats or mistreatment
  • Foster connections with the community by creating spaces to meet and make new acquaintances
  • Provide training and internships for those who need to adapt their skill sets or learn new skills to aid their integration into the workforce

Finally, there is something I have found helpful: give refugee journalists the space and time to process what has happened to them, conduct research, write about their experiences, and formulate new plans for the future.