"Journalism is a job for those who are brave enough to bear the consequences" – Interview with Journalist Armağan Kabaklı

ECPMF

20 December 2023

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Armağan Kabaklı, a devoted local journalist from Turkey committed to covering environmental and policy issues, joined ECPMF’s Journalists-in-Residence Programme, after the devastating earthquakes on 6 February 2023 that destroyed 11 cities and when his investigative reporting triggered a criminal case. Having witnessed the earthquake, he now strives to forget the haunting images of his hometown being destroyed.

You had been reporting on the earthquakes for several weeks, filming the people’s despair and criticising how the authorities mishandled the situation. Did this criticism have consequences?

Well, the stories about earthquake came out without my byline, so I didn’t encounter a direct threat. At the time, I collaborated with a foreign journalist, and together we went to Hatay, the region that was affected by the earthquake the most. The scene there was a complete disaster. The entire city seemed to have disappeared. As we attempted to interview people about their experiences, we found them asking us for basic necessities – clean underwear, water, and food. There was neither transportation nor phone connection nor internet access.

 

Where were you when it happened?

The earthquake struck in the early morning, around 4 o’clock. We were all sound asleep. In the first seconds of the tremor I leaped out of bed. In the house with me were my mom and my brother. I tried to go to check on them, but the tremors made it nearly impossible. I only managed to reach the doorway of my room, where I spotted my brother. Then the shaking intensified and I was so convinced that everything is on the verge of collapse. At that moment I thought if we collapse, I’ll cover my brother to protect him. Those fleeting moments felt like an eternity. Eventually, the tremors stopped, but my mom kept screaming. Swiftly, I seized the phones and went down the stairs and saw that entire street assembled outside. Business alarms and some vehicle sirens were wailing. I tried to contact a few people, seeking information on their situations, but initially, both phone lines and the internet were unresponsive.

 

How did you cope emotionally? Were you afraid?

For roughly a month, I grappled with a mix of fear and trauma and I was too afraid to step back into my house. I couldn’t even be happy about being alive anymore because of the lifeless children’s bodies I saw on the streets. I tried to sleep in a tent I set up in the park at night, sometimes in a restaurant to escape the cold, and sometimes in a rented car. After a month, I was completely exhausted, both mentally and physically. I eventually ceased working, retreating to another city for a few days. During that challenging period, it felt like there was no one to turn to, as everyone around me was grappling with their own problems. Moreover, I was aware that there were people facing even more difficult circumstances than mine, making me hesitant to seek assistance. To this day, there are videos in my gallery that I simply cannot bring myself to watch again. I was unprepared for such trauma.

 

Turkey is often ranked among the countries with the least press freedom. How does it  impact your day-to-day work? Are you able to answer questions openly, or do you prefer not to answer at all?

Addressing these questions undoubtedly carries risks. Nevertheless, journalism inherently involves taking risks to secure the democratic future of societies, venturing beyond comfort zones to advocate for social interests. The harsh truth is that press freedom has, in practice, all but disappeared in Turkey. As a member of the Journalists’ Union of Turkey, I am actively engaged in the ongoing battle against censorship and threats to journalists. We stand as one of the most organised non-governmental organisations in Turkey, committed to preserving the principles of a free press amid challenging circumstances.

 

What about self-censorship in your work. How freely can you report, and do you withhold things?

While it’s true that some people withold things, I am not one of them. Personally, I don’t feel any inclination towards self-censorship, largely because I am not beholden to any dependencies. But that doesn’t mean I don’t bear the consequences. In this field, you essentially have two choices: either apply self-censorship and make money, or practice journalism authentically and accept the repercussions. Journalism, at its core, is a job for those who are brave enough to bear the consequences of their work.

 

You have been working in journalism since 2001; how has the media landscape changed in Turkey over the years?

Unfortunately, the landscape has undergone a significant shift, particularly since the ascent of the AKP and Erdogan to power in 2002. Initially, they championed promises of Turkey’s integration into the European Union, touting commitments to press freedom, democracy, and civilianisation. However, the actions taken once in power contradicted these assurances. Instead of decentralising power, they consolidated it in their hands, fostering societal polarisation. Erdogan has shown little affinity for political pluralism, resulting in media organisations falling under the influence of his government and associates, often with the aid of loans from state banks.

 

Through acquisitions, the media environment turned into a monopolistic one-voiced structure, leading to the unemployment of numerous journalists. These positions were often filled by individuals of questionable ethical standing. Last year’s introduction of the disinformation law appears to be a blatant attempt to silence anyone reporting on matters that Erdogan disapproves of. Consequently, numerous journalists have faced arrests and prosecutions under the pretext of violating this restrictive law.

 

You are affected by this law due to your reporting on recycling companies in Adana and their legal violations. Do these stories manage to capture sufficient public attention? Is there a substantial level of concern regarding environmental issues?

Over the past three years, I’ve been reporting on this matter. Unfortunately, what began as the export of plastic waste from European countries under the banner of recycling has devolved into a dirty trade. As China closed its doors to European plastic waste, Turkey swiftly emerged as the continent’s largest importer. Moreover, plastic waste from Israel and Arab countries also finds its way to Turkey under the pretext of recycling. In Turkey, hundreds of facilities, both large and small, import thousands of tonnes of plastic. However, the plastic waste purportedly brought in for recycling is often disposed in Adana. The items without any commercial value are being left to poison agricultural lands and rivers or incinerated, leading to toxic air breathed in by the city’s residents. So, that is the story.

 

Our reporting in Adana triggered a response from society, prompting a temporary ban on imports by the government. However, this was later lifted with the introduction of new criteria. Examination of import figures reveals a gradual increase each year. Concerns persist, given the environmental poisoning of agricultural lands, seas, and air. Despite the European Union designating plastics as recycled, they pose a direct threat to life in Adana. I advocate for our country to develop its own waste policy and prioritise sorting its own waste first.

 

However, the majority of Turkey’s population grapples with pressing issues in their daily lives, making it understandable that environmental threats take a backseat. Moreover, the entrenched political connections of this sector exert a significant lobbying influence on the government. Consequently, journalists reporting on these factories, like myself, face accusations of being against job creation and earning foreign currency. Some journalists covering these issues have even been subjected to physical violence. Personally, I was accused of violating the Disinformation Law and subjected to an investigation for documenting chemical waste dumped into the Ceyhan River after reporting on these issues. While these challenges are unfortunately commonplace for my colleagues in Turkey, this situation is not sustainable.

 

Please tell more about criminal case against you.

One day, I received a call from the police station, informing me that I was required to present myself for questioning. Upon arrival, I was confronted with accusations that I had violated disinformation legislation. According to this legislation, journalists could potentially face imprisonment for up to three years. The authorities not only singled me out but also insisted on the closure of my Twitter account, asserting that it posed a threat to the country. They also denied me the right to make copies of the documents, so I just took pictures of them. I was advised to wait for a call from the prosecutor. But they never did. Then earthquake happened and the ensuing chaos shifted the focus, diverting attention from the pending legal matters.

 

In many countries, local reporters often find themselves in the shadows compared to their counterparts in major media. Is this the case in Turkey, and how influential is local journalism?

Local journalists still play a key role despite working under difficult conditions. For this reason, more support should be given to experienced local journalists who know the realities and dynamics of the region, especially to verify fake news. The contribution of local journalists is pivotal for sustaining democracy and fostering media pluralism.

 

However, local journalism has a number of challenges to overcome. The challenges discussed broadly in the profession also impact the local press, but with additional intricacies. For example, local newspapers generally employ fewer reporters and fill their pages with news largely supplied by news agencies. This reliance on news agencies content, coupled with minimal readership and advertising revenues, creates financial hardships, pushing these newspapers into direct dependency on municipal subsidies. This financial reliance, in turn, compromises critical journalism, as expressing opinions critical of local authorities may jeopardise the support crucial for the newspaper’s survival.

 

When purchasing a local newspaper in Adana, for instance, readers are likely to find nearly identical content across about 20 newspapers, differing mainly in headlines. Limited financial resources also hinder their digital presence, making it challenging to access digital facilities and generate independent online income.

 

Before I came to Germany I had established an independent digital media platform. Despite facing the same challenges outlined earlier, our lack of visibility on the national stage made it difficult to achieve sustainable income. Inflation and rising expenses eventually led to the closure of the platform after three years.

 

In other words, the role of local journalism is as great as its difficulties. A journalist who is popular in national media can continue on their way by producing content on social media channels such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. After returning to Turkey, my dream is to create an initiative that will set an example in the digital transformation of the local press and continue on its way with independent digital revenues. However, I acknowledge that this project requires time and energy that I currently do not possess.

 

I would like to thank ECPMF for all the support they have provided to a local journalist like me. The whole team has been sensitive and supportive over the months. What we needed most to recover was the warmth and helpfulness of each and every ECPMF team member. I admire and am grateful to each and every one of them.

Read more about ECPMF’s Journalists-in-Residence programme here.

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