Turkish TV journalists use Periscope to build their own independent channel

by Jane Whyatt

In today’s Turkey it takes a lot of courage to create a new independent media channel. More than 160 journalists who were critical of the government of President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan are in jail. So to set up Medyascope is a risky enterprise. This online TV news portal was launched on a shoestring with volunteer reporters using the Periscope free app to broadcast live. The channel aims to provide an independent news service, not aligned to any political party or movement. Reporter Cem Öner explains in an interview with ECPMF what drove him to take these risks, and how the channel has survived for the past two years.

Cem Öner Cem Öner of Medyascope, an independent channel für independent news in Turkey (copyright: Fredrik Drevon)

Why did you feel the need to create Medyascope? 

In simple terms, Medyascope is an online media platform, broadcasting live interviews, discussions and commentaries through Periscope, YouTube and Facebook. I think there were two inspirations: One of them is to understand the importance and the power of new technologies for media. The other, to seek 'independence' for journalism. 

How did it start? was founded by our editor-in-chief, a well-known Turkish researcher and journalist, Ruşen Çakır. In March 2015, Çakır started to use Periscope to report on recent developments in the country from his office at one of Turkey’s biggest newspapers, "Haberturk". He used this mobile application to cover political rallies in different cities of Turkey before the June 7 elections and conducted interviews with members and supporters of different political parties. After he was sacked from "Haberturk" due to his criticism of the government, in August 2015, Çakır decided to found, the first Periscope-based online TV channel in Turkey. The Periscope broadcasts were well received and their success was a source of inspiration.

How hard was it to establish an outlet like this?

Çakır and his colleagues already had an awareness of badly-structured Turkish media. Because the media in Turkey is always trapped between economic and political powers, it cannot fulfill its role to reflect diverse voices and opinions. Media, being part of conglomerate corporations in Turkey, is being immensely influenced by those who hold power. Consequently, under the pressure from those in power holders - as we see today- freedom of speech becomes more restricted every day. This situation in Turkish media is reflected in Medyascope's motto "Because it’s free".

How many people work for Medyascope?

On October 2015, Çakır and his colleagues decided to set up a joint stock company with an independent shareholder structure under the name of Scope Media. Starting with a small but hard-working team of volunteers, Medyascope expanded in a short time. At the moment, there are 30 editors and reporters working full-time for Medyascope. What’s more, Medyascope has became a platform where the enthusiasm of young journalists meets with the experience of veteran journalists. 

Now, our website has 20,000 daily visitors. Also, our shows have an average live viewership number that fluctuates between 2,000 and 6,000 on Periscope.

We also have shows on politics in Kurdish, English, French and German to discuss a great variety of topics with experts and commentators who cannot speak Turkish. We translate these shows to Turkish and publish the translated texts on our website.

How are you able to maintain a critical perspective on Turkish affairs when so many journalists are in jail in Turkey just for doing their jobs? 

Do you ask why we are not in jail? I am just kidding. There is no guarantee that it won't happen. Unfortunately, this is not a joke! There is only one answer to this question: at times, even fulfilling basic journalistic responsibilities may become a critical perspective in itself. For instance, today, in Turkey you cannot hear of any opponent’s views on mainstream media, but you can read the reaction of the government against him or her as news. Because you have no idea of its background, you have to read between the lines to understand what is going on.

As this example shows, if the media institutions are able to protect their objectivity and insist on being open to all opinions - as the basic rules of journalism suggest - this will lead to a critical stance by itself. 

But this is not as simple as it seems. Especially in times like this, the ability to protect your objectivity and openness really depends on your financial and editorial independence. We are trying to achieve this.

How would you describe the political perspective of Medyascope? 

We make pluralist and pro-democratic journalism. Of course, all of us have got political views as an individual in either this or that way. But despite all those differences, we are first and foremost journalists who want to do their jobs independently and ethically. We don’t see ourselves as activists or as political opponents. 

Our motto “Because it's free" does not only mean to be against political powers, but also to be against all forms of practices and engagement that aim to limit press freedom. Today, rather than facts and evidence, most Turkish journalists prefer to use political rhetoric in their news pieces and columns. For ordinary viewers, this necessitates first solving the political puzzles and interests behind that rhetoric. Whereas the language of journalism should be neutral. 

Today the Turkish media, like the society, is divided into pro- and anti-governmental. We always try to put an equal distance between ourselves and each side. When we decide on the names of guests and commentators to be invited to our shows, we don't care about their political views or ideological backgrounds. If someone has a word to say, if someone can give detailed knowledge on any subject to the public, we offer them the opportunity to use our platform by ignoring their pro- or anti-government stance.  

On the other hand, we also want to be a platform that gives voice to silenced public figures as well. Medyascope's doors are always open to the journalists who have been dismissed, to sacked academics or to others who have been marginalised.

Where does the funding come from?

At the beginning, when Çakır and his colleagues decided to set up a joint stock company, their aim was to transform this platform of independent journalism into a profitable business. Yet, the increasing pressures and the attacks on independent media in Turkey, which were quickly exacerbated after the failed coup attempt of July 15 2016, have severely damaged income-generating possibilities for outlets similar to Medyascope. Many businesses have pulled their advertisements from these independent outlets and been reluctant to pay for new ones. Medyascope is now dependent on funds and grants. Chrest Foundation has supported the curation, editing and production of the daily NewsHour, Günebakış. We have received a Chrest grant for two consecutive terms.

Open Society Turkey is one of our core funders. The technical infrastructure and the hiring of new editors and reporters were made possible by their contribution. Open Society USA gave us a grant to start and to continue broadcasts in other languages. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (Germany) gave Medyascope a grant for web-site development. And also we recently reached an agreement with a Swedish fund, SIDA.

We also receive some grants based on TV shows. For instance, last year, Heinrich Böll Stiftung sponsored two shows: The Open Debate, taking place every Thursday featuring three commentators who discuss the recent developments in Turkey, and Human Rights Scorecard, a show about the work of different NGOs and human rights activists. The Institut Français supports Haldun Bayrı’s translations of important articles from French into Turkish, that are published every weekend.

On the one hand, reaching and ensuring the support of different donors in a fairly short period is important. On the other hand, the funds we receive are piecemeal and project-based. Moreover, broadcasting, even under our current circumstances is quite expensive. We know that, as long as the political situation in Turkey stays the same, we will not be able to generate income through conventional means. Therefore, sustaining donor support and reaching new donors and longer term funding opportunities is crucial for us to continue the important work we have been doing for two years.