ISTANBUL – Feras Fayyad moves with calm, easy-going confidence through a spacious warren of offices in one of this city’s tonier business districts. With his gray cardigan, long hair, and loose-fitting red-knit cap, the Syrian filmmaker evokes a what-me-worry hipster more than an exile battling a despotic regime, with a baby on the way.
But Fayyad has good reason to be relaxed. Just over two years ago, he was at Damascus International Airport, heading to the Dubai International Film Festival to screen his latest documentary, a film with anti-Assad overtones about a dissident Syrian poet from the 1970s, when Syrian security forces stopped him from boarding his flight, put a bag over his head, and pushed him into a car.
In a series of detention centers, they interrogated him and beat him repeatedly. Released after five months, he and his wife fled from Damascus to Amman, where they hoped to make films about the troubles in their homeland. “We couldn’t do it in Jordan because the government there was worried about upsetting the Assad government,” said the 30-year-old.
The couple relocated to Turkey in late 2012, decided they could reach more Syrians via radio, and, after months of preparation, launched Sout Raya (Sound of the Flag) last month. “Istanbul is very close to Syria and we have more freedom here to work,” added Fayyad. “We can report on what we want about our country.”
Few would associate today’s Turkey with media freedom. It’s jailed more reporters than any other country for two years running, according to the Committee to Project Journalists. Yet Istanbul is quietly emerging as a hub for media outcasts from across the region. As their war at home has dragged on, some 700,000 Syrian refugees have made themselves at home across Turkey, launching 30 newspapers and a handful of radio stations. A few weeks ago, an Egyptian political group announced the launch of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Rabaa TV in Istanbul. Days later, Gulnara Karimova, the tabloid-friendly, all-but-exiled daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, detailed the silencing of her own media properties in a rare, 5,000-word interview with the Istanbul-based Turkish newspaper Hurriyet.
Perhaps all this shouldn’t come as a surprise: The former Constantinople has been welcoming vocal outsiders for ages. Jonah ben Jacob Ashkenazi, a publisher with roots near Lviv, in what is now Ukraine, launched Istanbul’s first Hebrew printing press in 1711. Years later, Ibrahim Muteferrika, a Protestant from present-day Romania who had converted to Islam and become a palace messenger, launched the city’s first Arabic press after persuading the Grand Mufti to issue a fatwa permitting the printing of books in Arabic, ending a two and a half-century Ottoman ban (violations were initially punishable by death). And in the mid- to late-19th century, Persian intellectuals settled in Istanbul and printed books, newspapers, and pamphlets that were later smuggled back into Iran.
Mustafa Kemal broke with these traditions when he founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Out went Arabic script, the Caliphate, and Ottoman hospitality; in came secularism, media controls, and Turkishness. The new xenophobia—“a Turk’s best friend is another Turk,” one saying goes—led to episodes of violence. By the 1990s, most of the city’s Greeks, Armenians, and Jews had fled, and the number of foreign-language newspapers had fallen from close to 300 in the 19th century to just a handful.
But the neo-Ottoman foreign policy of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) aims to resurrect that old Constantinople sense of welcome, leveraging the country’s demographic and economic strength to spearhead a regional revival. “We will continue to guide the winds of change in the Middle East and be its leader,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Turkey’s parliament in April 2012.
That hasn’t exactly come to pass. In the lead-up to local elections in March, the ruling party has been seized by one crisis after another. Protests against creeping authoritarianism, originating in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, swept the country earlier this year. More recently, a massive corruption investigation has precipitated the resignation of three key government ministers and sparked calls for the government to step down, after nearly a dozen years in power.
Beyond their borders, Turkish officials have seemed flummoxed by the region’s shifting alliances and vast unpredictability—waffling on closer ties to Israel and the EU, and continuing to support Mohammed Morsi’s ousted regime in Egypt. Bashar al-Assad’s enduring grip on power has proven the most costly, and much of Turkey’s 510-mile border with Syria is now a no-go zone. Ankara has been forced to repeatedly deny accusations that it supports al Qaeda-linked rebels, though just-released UN documents show Turkey has sent nearly 50 tons of weapons to Syria since June. And in May, twin car bombs, which Turkey believes were masterminded by Syrian intelligence, killed 53 people in Reyhanli, a border town.
That explains why Ankara had little problem saying hosgeldiniz to Sout Raya. “Hosting these broadcasting organizations linked to opposition groups in nearby countries is a departure from Turkey’s established diplomatic practice,” says Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and a fellow at Carnegie Europe. “Though Turkey probably doesn’t care what the Assad government thinks, given that the relationship at this point is non-existent.”