On March 1, the International Press Institute (IPI) launched the new report “Journalism Under the Shadow of the Pandemic: Turkey” with an online event. The study, conducted by IPI Turkey National Committee member İpek Yezdani, analysed how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected independent media and journalism in Turkey based on in-depth interviews with prominent journalists and editors of independent media outlets. Doğan Akın, the founder and editor-in-chief of T24 news site, and İpek Özbey, the managing editor of Cumhuriyet, who were interviewed under the study, joined the panel to shed more light on the challenges and what did they do to overcome them.

You can read the full report here.

The study conducted 18 interviews with media executives, editors and journalists from a diverse range of independent media outlets about their experience during the pandemic. Six of the interviews were also filmed and released as videos by IPI, including as part of an additional short film. You can watch the interviews here.

During the panel, Yezdani first presented the report’s findings and the methodology of the study, highlighting the fact that this report is the first in Turkey to assess the impact of the pandemic on independent media. Yezdani also clarified that the study’s identification of “independent media” refers to independence from government influence.

Following these clarifications, Yezdani explained that a number of key topics were raised by journalists during the interviews, including physical, legal and financial challenges, access to information and censorship. She further elaborated that the interviews covered lessons learned from this period and what can critical media do to tackle the challenges. Quoting Ruşen Çakır, the founder of Medyascope, Yezdani added, “The independent media has faced great challenges in this period, but it was not crushed beneath these challenges. It got up and continued on its way.”

T24 Editor-in-Chief Akın pointed out that independent journalism in Turkey had been tested – and passed the test. “I think independent journalism in Turkey was also vaccinated with the pandemic”, Akın said. He underlined the sharp reduction in ad revenues as of last March, when the first cases of COVID-19 were announced. Akın said that T24’s ad revenue loss was first around 13 percent in March, then 15 percent in April, 38 percent in May and went up to 51.6 percent in June, which had a devastating impact on the outlet economically. But he stressed that already in September, T24 had almost recovered financially. He said that this recovery was likely to be the consequence of the need of increased digital access of the private sector to increase profit online.

Akın said that T24 had concentrated on producing more video content to counter the pandemic’s negative impact on news production, which generated a certain degree of revenue for the outlet. “With this way, we tried to compensate our loss from the advertising”, he added. Akın explained that the necessity of remote working conditions inspired T24 to expand its capacity without the problem of the size of newsroom.

Cumhuriyet Managing Editor Özbey said that her newspaper had observed that misinformation and propaganda spread as fast as the virus itself. Stating that the misinformation about the virus almost caused readers not to touch the physical newspaper, Özbey said that the circulation of Cumhuriyet daily had decreased considerably until readers received healthier public information on the topic. “Especially during the lock-down periods, nobody wanted to go to the markets and buy newspapers”, she said, adding that initially they had to reduce the number of print pages as the paper prices folded. She noted that after a brief period of reduction in pages, they decided to increase the number of pages as the reduction was unfair to those readers continuing to buy the newspaper.

Özbey underlined that the biggest support against economic difficulties in this period was from the newspaper’s readers themselves, despite continuing financial pressure through the Press Advertisement Agency’s fines on the newspaper for critical coverage.

In terms of censorship and access to information, panelists highlighted that although the accreditation of independent media representatives to the Minister of Health’s press briefings was a positive development, this was undermined when the minister revealed in September that the statistics on COVID-19 case were underreported. Akın stated that there was no direct attempt to censor T24, independent medical organizations such as Turkish Medical Association were not included in the government’s pandemic policies and were even silenced. He noted that this was censorship, albeit indirectly.