As the Republic of Turkey celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2023, last year also marked a year of investigations, detentions, lawsuits, arrests, violence and self-censorship for Turkey’s journalists. According to data from the International Press Institute (IPI), in 2023, there were more than 300 cases of journalists on trial in Turkey.  At least 37 different investigations were filed against at least 33 journalists this year under the disinformation law, passed in October 2022, which criminalizes “publicly disseminating misleading information”.

In addition to ongoing judicial harassment, it was as difficult as ever for journalists to do their work online and offline. According to data compiled by Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) and IPI, 47 journalists were subjected to physical violence in at least 29 different cases, while at least 15 journalists were threatened or insulted online for their journalistic work.

Threats and targeting of women journalists continued unabated in 2023, especially in relation to coverage of major events such as national elections in May and the devastating earthquakes last February. At least five women journalists have been subjected to serious threats and insults online, while many others were prevented from doing their jobs or targeted by responsibles in the field.

Amid this backdrop, IPI spoke with Evrim Kepenek, Women-LGBTI+ editor of the news portal bianet, which has been doing first-string journalism in the field of rights and citizen journalism, about the challenges faced by women journalists in Turkey and the dangers of Turkey’s disinformation law.

IPI: You work as the Women-LGBTI+ editor at bianet, a position we don’t often see in Turkey. What are the subtleties and difficulties of working in this position?

Evrim Kepenek: One of bianet’s greatest strengths is that, as you said, it has assigned one person to the field of women and LGBTI+. Of course, this brings with it certain responsibilities. For example, looking at every news story from a gender perspective, in the most concrete form, if an expert opinion is to be taken in a news story, it is necessary to check whether there are women here. 

The difficulties are of the kind experienced by journalists working in every field. But here, sexist pressures come in addition to this. For example, when I publish a story on violence against women or sexual harassment, I receive lots of messages targeting and insulting me on social media and often via e-mail. In fact, masculinity is the bane of much of this society, and because I frequently step on that bane, I personally and bianet as an institution are often targeted by conservative groups.

It is also necessary to constantly follow feminist literature and developments in this field in Turkey and the world. It is essential to know and follow the ongoing debates without being a part of them, and to be aware of the agenda of the women’s movement and LGBTI+ rights. It is also crucial to follow academics who have worked in this field and current articles. I don’t know if these aspects can be defined as a difficulty but I would define them as a necessity rather than a challenge.

Evrim Kepenek

Like many other women journalists, you have been targeted and subjected to online violence because of your news reports. Is it possible to say that the news organizations and professional associations where journalists work in Turkey are able to take the necessary measures and react to these attacks against journalists?

It is not possible at all. Unfortunately, all of us, especially those who receive these threats, have taken this situation for granted and normalized it. In other words, because we have normalized it, we do not react personally, so professional organizations should do so. It is looked at as “If you are a woman, this is what this profession is like”. I am not even touching on the legal aspect.

Recently, we have observed an increase in online harassment and threats against women journalists reporting on refugees. How should we evaluate this situation? Is the increasing social polarization on the refugee issue prompting this? Or the current practices and laws of the government?

The times I report on refugees, I am threatened in a horrible way, I hear unspeakable swear words. Sometimes I think,“I wonder if they will find my home and come and rape me.” I usually receive threats about rape. However, I usually don’t think about these things before you ask, they only come to my mind when organizations and people like you who work on these issues ask. Because it is very difficult to cope with this and when you think about it overall, your coping power decreases.

You can “forget” about it in the daily routine of news flow, but there is a reality: Because you write news in this country, your house can be raided by police at any moment, you can be handcuffed, you can be introduced to your neighbors as a “terrorist”. You can be cursed at, you can be verbally harassed by the police when they see you on the street covering the news. I guess the way to psychologically overcome all this, at least for me, is to report more. Writing the news is like breathing to me. This may sound like an exaggeration, it feels like that to me too. But unfortunately this is the situation I live under.

I am not even going into the language and the polarizing practices used by the government because if we were really killed or attacked by a religious abuser, we know that this government would be the first to pat them on the back. I know this from the women’s marches and the pride marches. As long as this government remains in power in this country, women and women journalists will have a very difficult environment to work and live in.

As of the end of 2023, at least 33 journalists, including you, were under investigation under the disinformation law passed by parliament in October 2022. Could we state that the law has caused or will cause a self-censorship inclination among journalists?

A disinformation case was filed against me for tweeting and video-sharing the statement of local administrators in official state institutions that “Earthquake aid will only be provided through Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD)”. 

As for your question, I don’t know if there are any journalists who say “I don’t censor myself”, but let me be clear, I do. When I write something, I try to write it in a way that does not pose a legal problem for me, but of course not by bending the truth.

This law means judicial harassment for us. They can file a lawsuit against you for any news they want, saying “This is false information”. If the news reports do not spread the information they want, you are targeted. This is clearly stated in the law and we already see this in practice.

According to the latest case against me, which I mentioned above, I, as a journalist, caused “an outrage” with a news tweet. My lawyer said, “What happened after this tweet? Did someone break a door or a window? Did people fight each other? No, nothing like that happened.”

But the authorities were somehow upset by this tweet and decided to bring a case against me. They are always watching me, I know that, and of course I don’t feel comfortable reporting. My family is worried, too.

Journalism has never been easy in this country, even in the world, but we know that at this point there is no legal security and that is the main problem. This is not only a problem for journalists, but also for citizens. If we cannot report news, society will have lost its right to receive news. And it has already lost it.

No need to make sentences like “There are dark days coming for journalists”. There has always been darkness, but unfortunately, we have never been able to weave together, in this common struggle, a network of professional organizations against this darkness. While the disinformation law has easily turned into a “censorship law” for us, it is not even an issue for many journalists.

Some of IPI’s previous articles on online harassment/violence against women journalists in Turkey can be found below:

  1. Online violence targeting women journalists and responses from the news organizations: Current methods and needs
  2. Have we ended online harassment against journalists?  (TR)
  3. IPI Interview: Online attacks targeting women journalists in Turkey (TR)
  4. IPI’s database on online abuse against journalists
  5. Rampant sexism’ in attacks on Turkey’s women journalists 
  6. IPI launches ‘Voices Against Online Harassment’ series 
  7. Protocol for newsrooms to tackle online harassment (TR)
  8. IPI online course: Building an effective protocol for newsrooms to address online harassment
  9. Newsroom measures to address online harassment 
  10. Online harassment against freelance journalists