Pınar Öğünç

The pandemic has sent Turkish journalists, especially local ones, in a dire state. I spoke to a local journalist who is both an editor-in-chief and a reporter. Based in the Black Sea town of Samsun, the journalist single-handedly manages a news site. He is 43 years old and has been a journalist for 20 years. Here is his story:

When you work as a local journalist, you end up knowing everyone, people from all political horizons. I often get calls like “brother, you shouldn’t do it.” At times, I find the profession exhausting. For instance, each time I disclose some kind of wrongdoing in a municipality or institution, the trolls step in.  

Since the coronavirus, I’ve been on the streets to do my job, using the masks and disinfectant the Provincial Health Directorate distributed to reporters. With the pandemic came disinformation. As a journalist, I’ve been striving to provide correct information and share data with Samsun denizens. People are often unaware of the circumstances and flout the necessary precautions. I do my best to remind them of the situation and tell them that if the current trend persists, we will inevitably see a second wave. 

For instance, Samsun hosts a local market with 600 shopkeepers who were about to reopen the market last week. I wrote an article saying this came too early and warned them of the possible consequences. Friends from the market called me saying: “Brother, you’re right, but we don’t have a penny.” 

Thanks to my efforts, the market was opened much later. So I went there to do a story. 

One of our colleagues had problems with security forces whilst reporting live from the street. I too encountered similar issues a few times in the past. I was told to leave and give up on my work. 

While the printed press is able to benefit from official advertisements, it’s more difficult for online media like us. In Turkey, advertisements have yet to make their way to online media. We also suffer from a general distrust regarding disinformation as it is remarkably easy to set up one’s own website. In fact, there have been several instances of people broadcasting for a week before registering themselves with the local authorities in order to be considered local media outlets. Some local authorities have been wary of this, yet nepotism runs rife and some websites were established in this way. Advertisements are scarce and cost around 100 or 150 Turkish Liras per unit. 

Four people run our website. We also work as a media agency and do social media work. That’s how we earn a living. Of course, we keep our expenses down. In fact, my wife owns the website.

Working as a journalist locally differs greatly from working nationwide. For instance, I often know the people who publish critical content about me. So I can remind them of our problems, our debts, loans and so on. At least, such communication and ties are possible at a local level. 

I’ve always been eager to cover my stories. I both write and take photographs myself. Throughout the years, I’ve developed my own style. Young reporters do not know what it was like back then. They can’t compare current politicians with those of the past. I can’t say I’m financially satisfied, but at least I’m spiritually satisfied. 

The way I fell into journalism is also quite peculiar. After my compulsory military service, I went to the north central Anatolian town of Çorum where I had relatives. A few friends from school had set up a newspaper. I teased them and saw them as amateurs with little experience in the field. But one day, I saw that the sign of a street called “Uğur Mumcu Street” had been erased. That street happened to be in a predominantly Alevi and leftist neighbourhood. I told my friends to report on it so that the municipality would put the sign back up. They followed suit. Despite that, no one repaired the sign. After a few weeks, I went and painted the sign myself. My friends took my picture and did a story on me. That’s how I started. 

In Samsun, there’s pro-government media and opposition media. At times, opposition media choose to turn a blind eye to some events. Yet there are some very brave reporters who do a remarkable job. 

The industry was a lot easier back in the days of the printed press. In the past, I never reneged on a story. I’ve made stories on illegal construction projects that involved high-level residents. But nowadays, we are more cautious as we’re cash-strapped. 

Besides, at the local level, those brave enough to write the news as it is are often treated as lepers. This might come as a shock for newly hired reporters. If they engage in criticism, no one will end up printing their work. As an example, look where our coverage of the coronavirus epidemic has brought us.”

On the day we conducted the interview, the government had announced 143,114 cases and 3,952 deaths. 

Many people speak of this unpredictable state of emergency created by a virus that surrounded the planet in a matter of months, which will make the current inequalities of capitalism more visible while deepening them, and that after this nothing will be the same again.

Will it really not be the same? Why wouldn’t it? How is it possible to ‘heal’ when we are surrounded by an order rooted in deep inequality, the sexist division of labor, and exploitation in every aspect? Women, men, workers, civil servants, the unemployed, white-collar workers, blue-collar workers, those saying that the “collar” era has changed, freelancers, those who work at home, people still working, those forced to work, those under quarantine, those who can’t see the future, and those worn out from what they have seen are telling their stories.

The reason for having started this series of long articles is for hearing each others’ voices and searching for our own strength in those of others.