Turkey’s First All-Female News Agency Fights Media Oppression

In a country curbing press freedom, courageous female journalists continue making news for and by women.

Turkey’s first all-female news agency, Jin Haber Ajansi (JINHA), was born out of great struggle — to provide “an alternative to the media of our country, which are the greatest ideological apparatuses propagating subjugation of the female body,” according to Zehra Doğan, an ethnic Kurdish journalist formerly with the agency.

JINHA’s title is literal; it translates to “Women’s News Agency.” It’s among the select number of media outlets that the Turkish leadership suspended because Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused them of spreading the message of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric living in the U.S. who, in Erdogan’s view, orchestrated the failed coup to force him out in July 2016.

The same year marked the beginning of darker times for press freedom. In a media purge, 100 media outlets were shut down and at least 81 journalists were arrested. JINHA was forcibly shut on October 29, when the Turkish administration issued “a decree by the power of law” (or KHK decree), a decree that has no opposition or judicial control. It was a byproduct of the “State of Emergency” declared after the doomed July coup.

2016 marked the beginning of darker times for press freedom in Turkey.

A few days after the shutdown, several JINHA journalists were driven to court. Beritan Canözer, another former JINHA journalist, tells me she has already stood trial for having “membership to terror organization” and “making propaganda on the behalf of terror organization.”

“I was acquitted of the first charge, but am not over with the propaganda accusations,” she says.

For Doğan, who learned about the JINHA closure behind bars, circumstances are more complicated. During the tumultuous times after the failed coup, she was detained in Southeastern Turkey, pending trial for the same charges as Canözer. She was released last December, but in March this year was given a sentence of two years, nine months, and 22 days. The reason? Writings and paintings portraying the Kurdish town of Nusaybin after its destruction by Turkish security forces. These were later used by her prosecutors as evidence of her membership in the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Doğan said her lawyers have appealed the decision and she’s awaiting the next hearing.

The oppression that has long characterized the Turkish media landscape propelled the creation of JINHA. In 2012, about seven Kurdish journalists gathered to discuss how they could change the “sexist and militarist language” employed by regional press outlets. JINHA founders were also aghast at how much press oppression was taking a toll on journalists’ lives, like that of Ayfer Serçe, who was killed by the Iranian army in the Northwestern province of Azerbaijan while investigating suicides committed by Kurdish women.

JINHA was launched on March 8, 2012, on International Women’s Day. With their headquarters in the largest city in southeast Turkey, Diyarbakır, a majority of millennial journalists covered a wide range of topics — ecology, law, politics, life, culture, art, economy, labor, world, health and sports — targeting the female reader.

In four years, the team expanded, and managed to generate considerable revenue by relying exclusively on subscriptions, or selling video and photography to other local media. In 2016 alone, 70 women worked as camerawomen, journalists, editors, and other staff members. The website had several thousand visits daily, with 900 permanent subscribers. New offices were set up in Ankara, Istanbul, Van, Rojava, and Suleymaniye, and JINHA had reporters in virtually every city of Turkey. The future looked bright.

Former JINHA journalist Beritan Canözer.

That is, until the July 2016 purge, and the subsequent October 29 KHK decree. “The police raided our office in Diyarbakır on the night of October 29 without notifying us,” says Canözer. “On the morning of October 30, we went to our headquarters thinking we would — as usual — kick off the day having breakfast together, and then discuss the reportages of the day. Instead, we found our office doors sealed.”

Following the JINHA shutdown, waves of supporters expressed solidarity using the Twitter hashtag #JINHAsusmayacak (#JINHAcannotbesilenced). But social media activism in Turkey can get you caught between a rock and a hard place; it may spread solidarity messages far and wide, but it can also swiftly land you behind bars.

Just ask Doğan, who was just sentenced to nearly three years in prison for paintings and articles she posted through her Facebook account, and Canözer, who was arrested after a picture of a female Kurdish fighter was found on her Twitter account in late 2015. “We cannot talk about real (social) media freedom in Turkey right now,” Doğan stressed.

Will an all-female news agency go down in history as a fleeting ray of hope in a region where women’s rights and wider freedoms are questionable at best?

For now former JINHA journalists have no other choice than to keep their agency in limbo. Recently, Doğan, Canozer, and several other reporters and editors from JINHA have started working with Şûjin Gazete, an internet newspaper by and about women with news teams in Turkey, Rojava, and Iraqi Kurdistan. From there, they intend to carry on the JINHA spirit.

Former JINHA journalist Zehra Doğan.

But they haven’t entirely given up on the will to re-launch JINHA.

“I am still carrying the excitement of journalism inside me. I am a reporter,” says Canözer categorically. In December 2016, “inspired” by her — fortunately — few days as an inmate, she wrote an article on Şûjin Gazete about the 528 children who have to grow up in prison as their mothers were detained under the same accusations of political genocide operations.

Says Canözer:

“The images of the women I met are still haunting me, especially the infirm ones or the mothers who are raising their babies behind bars. I need to make more news about these women, and am committed to doing so in every given chance. But it is crucial that we do not get stuck to the victimization phase. We must also celebrate women’s successes and create an alternative vocabulary that will empower and enable them to go out there in the world and thrive professionally and socially.”

Doğan, whose situation is deemed critical by her former JINHA colleagues, is stumped by the new sentence the March court gave to her and the judicial battles ahead, but intends to continue fighting for journalism serving women in Turkey.

Doğan described the discrimination against female journalists and their abilities by Turkish male journalists: “When we started out and beyond, our male colleagues had trouble accepting us. There was a perception that we could not do it. Actually, they did not want us to do it,” she said.

That is what spurred her, within four months of writing for Şûjin Gazete, to produce stories lauding female intellect and grit — from highlighting female mathematicians and Sylvia Plath to featuring prominent female activists in the hot spots of the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, among others.

But the future of press freedom, and especially an agency like JINHA, looks worrying. In a referendum where President Erdogan pushed for an executive presidency, 51.4% of the Turkish public voted “yes,” sweepingly expanding his powers. The referendum itself may not be completely fair — there are accusations by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) that it took place on an unequal playing field — but this has not affected his expanded powers. (This Tuesday, Trump had a warm meeting with Erdogan, and protests over the meeting outside the Turkish embassy in Washington, DC, turned violent, with video surfacing that appears to show Erdogan’s guards knocking down and kicking protestors.)

‘We will continue editing the mainstream militarist and discriminatory media narrative that, in our opinion, has perpetuated gender inequalities in Turkey.’

I asked former JINHA journalists what these new “revived” Erdogan powers and lack of press freedom would mean for them. “From Şûjin Gazete, we will continue editing the mainstream militarist and discriminatory media narrative that, in our opinion, has perpetuated gender inequalities in Turkey,” Canözer responds, telling me she speaks for all of JINHA.

“We are determined to be successful in our own way. Our initial motto was ‘…to write without thinking about what men would say,’ as Virginia Woolf first stated. We still have to live up to this motto, but we are getting there.”

All images courtesy of Zehra Doğan and Beritan Canözer.

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