As part of our ongoing coverage of the Turkish media, Muftah spoke with Turkish journalist Ilhan Tanir. Tanir is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and founder of the new online media platform Washington Hatti (Washington Connection). Washington Hatti provides coverage of both Turkish and American news, in both Turkish and English. Though only a few months old, the outlet already has more than fourteen-thousand Twitter followers. Prior to founding Washington Hatti, Tanir was the Washington correspondent for the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet.
Muftah (M): Tell us about Washington Hatti and the impetus behind this new Turkey-focused media outlet.
Ilhan Tanir (IT): I have been reporting from Washington, D.C. since 2008-2009. Before that, I was writing my own blog and working for a private U.S. company, after I got my Master’s in 2006. Since the coup [attempt in July 2016], it has become difficult to find an outlet to write for in Turkey and be paid decently. Under normal circumstances, it was always difficult, and I was writing for 2-3 publications at a time. In late 2016, a friend who lives in Ankara came up with the idea to create a website for me [to write for]. From there, I put a couple of tweets out there to find some volunteers to help me out. Right now, we have about 40 editors and translators. We have about a half a dozen native [English] speaker editor volunteers and about 30 translators. They research, translate or write stories, and I edit, sometimes add my own comments etc.
[Washington Hatti] came out the necessity to provide more English-language coverage of Turkey. There are two main English language publications in Turkey, and I feel they are not enough. I don’t think they reflect what is going on in Turkey anymore at all. The opposition press was under enormous pressure before the coup, now it is almost unbearable. My own estimate is that 90% of the opposition media has been shut down. But, still there is some local media, and reliable Twitter accounts. We basically watch these reliable Twitter accounts, local media, and the few new outlets that exist and translate those into English. Dozens of my translators are living across Turkey and they also help us better understand what is going on the ground while reporting. They help us connect with daily life in Turkey and what people watch on TV. Most of them have their regular jobs, and regular interactions on the ground.
But there is also a big interest in the United States right now in Trump [related news]. I think if Clinton had won, we would have not been able to do as much American political coverage. But since everything Trump does is so unbelievable and unpredictable, every news item on Trump attracts a lot of attention. So the United States is the second element of our coverage. And since we are so used to how leaders with authoritarian tendencies make policy, we can easily connect what is happening in the United States with Turkey. Most of the time, we do not even need to connect the dots, we just report in Turkish on what Trump does and our Turkish readers are able to see the connections for themselves.
M: When you are reviewing your news sources in Turkey, what kind of stories are you looking to highlight for your English-language audience?
IT: I encourage my volunteers to send me articles from both sides of the political divide in Turkey. I ask them to send me columns and articles from government sources because we want to reflect all of Turkey. We mostly look for stories on human rights issues, press freedom issues, and how government papers are covering Turkey, as well as Trump. I wish we had more volunteers working on how Turkish state media is covering Turkey. I hope in the near future that more AKP supporters will become involved with our project.
For the next two months, since we are in the campaign season for the referendum [on changing the Turkish constitution to create an executive Presidency], we will be looking at how the Turkish government is handling the condition surrounding the vote. The referendum will definitely be at the top of our agenda. At least half of our volunteers live in Turkey, so this helps us write from the point of view of those who live in Istanbul, Ankara, Adana, Diyarbakir. [Our volunteers] work in a variety of areas, including government, private industry and universities, and some are full-time students. So that’s why I am very confident about our coverage– it is very much connected on the ground in Turkey.
M: Do you think that outlets like Washington Hatti are a model for the future of media in Turkey? Do you see other journalists like yourself responding to the current repressive atmosphere by creating their own independent platforms?
IT: Yes, I think so. I don’t think that print media is going to adapt and change. I don’t think that Dogan media [one of Turkey’s largest media conglomerates] and its various subsidiaries can change. If the proposed constitutional changes pass, then I expect Turkey is going to be even more authoritarian. And I don’t see the current trajectory as improving any time soon.
Under normal circumstances, I could not have done this project. Why would anyone in Turkey volunteer to write, particularly since most are writing under pseudonyms? But people want to do something. All these capable volunteers from all walks of life want to contribute because they see Turkey is heading in the wrong direction. If things keep going the way they have been and if the referendum passes, then I don’t think there is any other way [to do journalism in Turkey].
Opposition papers in Turkey have been facing very difficult times. Online news sites that only launched two or three years ago are now considered mainstream media in Turkey, and are under tremendous pressure. They can’t sell ad space in Turkey due to pressure from the government. I don’t know how they can sustain paying a dozen people with virtually no income.
So, I think there will be other outlets like ours, in order for [the media] to survive and to reflect what is going on, on the ground. I think there are a lot of people, who cannot live without writing about Turkey. And there will continue to be people like that. There are hundreds, thousands of creative, talented journalists and writers in Turkey, who want to write and investigate, but are not offered opportunities. I think international NGOs need to step up to fund journalism in Turkey.
People in Turkey do not lose hope, even under very difficult circumstances. They will continue to fight, whether in Turkey, whether in the United States. I think the people and journalists of Turkey will continue to adapt to the new conditions and continue to reflect the realities in Turkey, not just the rosy picture that authoritarian regimes prefer.
M:What has been the average Turk’s reaction to Trump and his policies so far? Are Turks generally in agreement about their government’s current friendly overtures toward Trump and the accusation that shady forces are trying to undermine him?
IT: I think there is confusion among Erdogan’s base. They see this Islamophobic president, who has been making these outrageous remarks against Muslims. And they see their own leader not saying much. The pro-AKP media is still very much protecting Trump and attacking Trump’s opposition. There are also the leftists or secularists, who don’t care much about Islamophobia. Many of them don’t believe there is such a thing called Islamophobia anyway. You don’t really see a lot of reaction [to Trump’s administration] from this demographic either. So there are some who are confused, and some who don’t care. But once or if Erdogan changes his mind [about Trump], I think there is real potential for a big backlash against Trump in Turkey.
M: As a Turkish journalist, what insights can you share about the U.S. administration’s recent rhetorical and policy attacks on the press?
IT: I don’t think that American democracy is going to evaporate overnight, but the quality of democracy can be damaged significantly in the near-term. When you look at Turkey ten years ago, which is when I think Erdogan started to increase his grip on power, compared to now, it is striking. Turkey has now come to a place where it is about to lose all the progress it has made over the past 60-70 years. In a couple of months, if the constitutional referendum passes, the media is going to be completely in the grip of Erdogan.
Even though America’s democratic institutions are much stronger, Trump is doing damage. For example, he is already taking steps to create his own media, by trying to reign in Voice of America and effectively replace it with Breitbart and Fox. This kind of media control could very well be expanded in the future. This is just one part of America’s democratic institutions Trump could damage. He will also likely open up the political field to other populist politicians, which could certainly put American democracy in grave danger. And Trump’s disregard for transparency, like his refusal to release his tax returns, as well as his outlandish claims disconnected from facts, will slowly but surely erode the democratic standards in this country.
M: As a journalist who formerly attended White House press conferences, what was your reaction to the banning of certain media outlets from the briefing? Do you think these briefings are an essential component of a free press in the United States or a mere formality?
IT: I think that both the White House and State Department press briefings are a great staple of American democracy. It is amazing to see [these press briefings], especially coming from a country like Turkey, where the government and foreign ministry hold very limited press conferences with restrictions on questions from press. Now we are seeing the same thing here. When we watch Sean Spicer’s press briefings, even the most well-known reporters are not allowed to ask follow up questions. I cannot believe we haven’t seen much backlash coming from White House reporters.
Today [March 7], it has been eight or nine days I think since the White House had a televised press conference. The reason, I believe, is that they have a lot to hide. I think there are a lot of questions they cannot answer, regarding the president’s outlandish remarks and claims. This is related to what we were discussing previously: the quality of American democracy. In the last eight to ten days, we have seen a lot of questions [about the actions of this administration] going unanswered. It is not a coincidence that we are already forgetting about the questions we saw raised last week. For example, what happened to Trump’s claim that he was going to investigate alleged voter fraud? No one is talking about that right now, or many of the other outlandish claims. I think the erosion of American democracy has already begun.
M: What advice do you have for American journalists at the moment, particularly those covering the current Administration and American politics?
IT: I strongly advise against being an activist journalist. I think many of us made that mistake in Turkey after the Gezi protests. When you become an activist journalist, you lose your credibility. Many American reporters are making this mistake, especially with regards to how they use Twitter. There is a very thin line between being an activist journalist and remaining bi-partisan in coverage. I know this is very difficult.
I also think [American journalists] need to keep fighting. Power has a corrosive tendency, and this administration is going to continue to use every means available to buy reporters. If they are successful in maintaining their own media pool, I think there is a real danger that what happened in Turkey could start happening here. Again, there are a lot of differences between Turkey and the United States. But just over the first seven weeks, the Trump administration has already made a lot of headway [toward degrading media freedom].
I actually think it is a great time for journalists in the United States, because they have an opportunity that journalists elsewhere do not have. Their media organizations are independent. Their bosses do not have to get licensed by the government, which is very important.
Journalists need to keep fighting, stay aggressive, and not forget the issues this administration is raising from week to week.