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.
Of course, 140 Journos’s popularity raises larger questions about the extent to which information spread via social media can be considered reliable. 140 Journos itself never publishes commentary, and removes any tweet traced to a different location than the one reported. Others following the group’s lead may not be so scrupulous, but many think that’s a risk worth taking. “There is a huge potential of distortion and manipulation in social media,” reflected Esra Arsan, a professor of journalism at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. “But in Turkey, in my country, these people are trying to spread real information. It’s not a big step. But it’s something.” Arsan was a print journalist until 1994, when she quit because it was becoming increasingly difficult to publish the kinds of stories she felt necessary.
Other members of the counter-media movement have chosen different ways of getting information to the public. Film director Imre Azem, 36, thinks visually, and draws connections between seemingly distinct but urgent urban issues in Istanbul in his award-winning documentary Ekümenopolis. A carpenter by day, Azem created his film primarily to provide an informative framework for people to unite around critical issues, ranging from the rise of squatter communities to the environmental damage to Istanbul’s last water reserves that a proposed third bridge over the Bosphorus would cause. “I wanted to bring about criticism of the system, but on a tangible level,” said Azem. “Something concrete and visible. There’s a lot of information that’s not visible, but has concrete manifestations.”
In Turkish cinemas, Ekümenopolis has only been seen by about 7,000 people, barely enough to cover its production costs. Most of those viewers have seen it through one of about 50 special screenings at festivals, at universities, and in neighborhoods. These screenings often include discussion groups. “People were saying that the film really gave them the tools to discuss these issues,” said Azem.
Counter-media is spreading even beyond documentary filmmakers and 140 Journos. The latter is, itself, actually part of the Institute of Creative Minds (also cofounded by Onder), which works to bring contentious issues like urban renewal to the public discourse. Another institute project called “Sound Space” is an interactive exhibit, which ran at the Istanbul Modern museum from October to December, that recreates the sounds of Istanbul neighborhoods in danger of destruction, like Tarlabasi and Sulukule. In another project, volunteers projected a realtime Twitter debate about nuclear energy in Turkey onto the walls of the Galata Tower, complete with audience participation and a small panel of experts.
Independent of the Institute of Creative Minds’ other endeavors, however, 140 Journos is quickly turning into a full-time enterprise. The organization is currently transitioning to a revenue model and, over the next few months, Onder hopes to implement a quality-checking system similar to that of Wikipedia’s. He also plans to release unique platform for 140 Journos soon, freeing them from third-party applications like Twitter. Such an app would make creating content even easier, and would widen the potential for anyone, hypothetically, to become a citizen journalist.
“We have to do this,” he reflected. “People are waiting.” But Onder remains wary of the fate of his organization in Turkey, and fears legal or illegal checks—or worse—on its activity from the government. He’s decided to rent server space in the Netherlands, which recently passed net neutrality legislation, so that the government can’t block the content.
We finish our lemonade, pay, and head back out to the crowded street; Onder has some tasks to take care of at his new office. He carefully slips his iPad into his messenger bag, which he slings over his shoulder, and we part ways. With his black T-shirt, sneakers and cargo shorts, he looks like any other Turkish student strolling through the center of town. He passes the Galata Tower, around which the police have resumed a restricted zone to prevent large crowds from gathering, and soon blends in with the bustle of Istanbul.