In a 2011 court case in Diyarbakır, Turkey, a student is on trial for membership in a terrorist organization. The case is legally open to the public, but no journalists are present in the small, cramped courtroom. After several hours, one of the police officers perusing his Twitter account outside discovers that someone is tweeting updates from the trial. He marches in during a break and angrily forbids the unknown user from covering proceedings. When the Tweets continue, the officer informs the judge, who also insists the tweets stop.
But they don’t. “They can’t recognize us,” Engin Onder said with a grin, after telling this story several months later. He paused to take a sip of his lemonade. Around us, the sunny, bustling cafe in Istanbul that he had suggested for the interview seemed immeasurably far from the shadowy courtrooms in southeastern Turkey. “They don’t know who I am. I could just be texting my dad.”
A 21-year old student at Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir Univesity, Onder co-founded 140 Journos, an organization whose volunteers use their own mobile devices to provide uncensored news to the public via social media platforms like Twitter and SoundCloud. Named for the 140-character limit on Twitter, 140 Journos has never consisted of more than 20 people. Although they occasionally seek out sympathetic professionals for advice, none of the members are journalism students. Still, they are challenging the concept of what it means to be a correspondent in a country that jails more journalists than any other nation, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Just last year, the Turkish government began its largest trial yet against the press, in which 44 pro-Kurdish journalists stand accused of backing an illegal Kurdish group, the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK). The defendants were arrested as terrorists, a possibility because the government maintains a broad legal definition of the term “terrorism,” and readily uses it to silence criticism. Students can be arrested for protesting tuition fees; journalists for “denigrating the state,” according to the indictment from September 2012.
“We are all journalists now,” Onder explained. “What we have is our own devices … it actually removes the barriers between the person who sees the news and who creates the news.”
Onder first began to think seriously about a “counter-media” movement after an airstrike on the Turkey-Iraq border killed 35 Kurdish villagers on December 29, 2011. “The first information released to the public only came after 12 hours,” Onder recalled. “But at the same time, social media was in a storm.” A week later, Onder grabbed drinks with a friend, who suggested that there was a real need for an alternative news source. Onder decided to form a team to do just that, and presented an early version of 140 Journos to his communications professor at Bahçeşehir, who told him that it would never work. The president of the university, however, saw things differently, and provided Onder and his fledgling organization with a small office in Galata, one of the central districts of Istanbul.
Since then, 140 Journos members has used the group’s Twitter handle to cover LGBTQ movements, student trials, protests, and terrorism cases. The urgency of their work became apparent during their coverage of the OdaTV trials this past summer, in which the news website’s owner, Soner Yalçın, and staff journalists Barış Pehlivan and Barış Terkoğlu were accused of participating in a terrorist organization and publishing confidential state documents. Frustrated by the lack of media coverage, 140 Journos again sent members to Tweet from the courtrooms—and discovered that thousands of people were following them on Twitter. “Wherever there’s something missing, and wherever the mainstream media does not want to be—we go there,” Onder said.
140 Journos is part of a small but vocal—and growing—counter-media movement in Turkey that rejects the government’s choke hold on the mainstream media. (When current prime minister Tayyip Erdogan came to power in 2003, he took control of 80 percent of the media companies.) Although largely liberal, these young, media-savvy, university-educated entrepreneurs don’t prioritize any particular ideology, except one: freedom of expression. For the larger public, this means a real chance at accessing information that doesn’t uniformly present the ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, in a positive light—a trend that, if spread widely enough, could mar the party’s and prime minister’s popularity.