Istanbul: An Unlikely Refuge for Exiled Journalists

Turkey, one of the most repressive countries in the world for reporters, is welcoming outcasts from Egypt and Syria. 

Promotional material for Sout Raya featuring Syrian radio host Mahmoud Hassino. (Sout Raya)

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.”

For war-battered Syrians, Turkey has been a haven. Ankara has spent $2.5 billion and counting on Syrian refugees. Turkish teachers have been working nights to educate Syrian children, and, with winter arriving early, the government recently allocated 40,000 apartments to refugees.

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s government fears building homes for Syrians refugees will encourage them to stay, as with Palestinians a half century ago. Ataka, a far-right party in Bulgaria, is ascendant largely due to calls to expel the country’s 6,500 “terrorist” Syrian refugees. And Jordan’s massive Zaatari refugee camp has gotten so bad of late that many refugees have chosen to risk a return to their war-zone homeland rather than stay.

Fayyad, by contrast, appreciates his Istanbul sanctuary. In a neighborhood of law firms, banks, and high-end hotels, Sout Raya’s offices have hardwood floors, modern furnishings, and flat-screen monitors. The station is backed by a U.S.-based Syrian businessman and employs more than a dozen people here, all Syrian. Some 15 freelance correspondents report from Syria, using just their first name out of concern for their safety.

Getting Sout Raya up and running took Fayyad and his wife, the screenwriter Alisar Hassan, nearly nine months. Elona, their daughter, is expected in February. “Alisar likes to say we have gone from zero babies to two,” said Fayyad. In addition to a children’s show, Sout Raya presents news, Arabic music, a history program hosted by the Syrian actress Azza al-Bahra, and a comedy-drama series about a family from Latakia forced to keep relocating as the conflict nips at their heels.

On a recent afternoon, a keening song by the Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum played on-air and over the office sound system while Mahmoud Hassino, a clean-cut producer who runs a media analysis show, chatted on his mobile phone in the sound room. “We like to focus on untold stories, the stories of single people rather than the event itself,” said Hassino.

A recent piece from inside Syria, for instance, highlighted Islamist rebels’ attempts to separate male and female students in Aleppo’s elementary schools. Another revealed how an Assad-regime sniper fulfilled his duties much like an office drone—taking the elevator up to his Aleppo rooftop every morning, and heading back home every evening. The Syrian government has already shown its disdain for Fayyad’s handiwork. Islamist rebels, who are looking more and more like the Syrian president’s probable successors, recently stole the station’s transmitter in Latakia.

Sout Raya broadcasts only online for now, but Fayyad expects to have the transmitter replaced by the end of the year. He also hopes to start broadcasting signals across Turkey and Jordan in 2014. “It’s going well because we are doing this in the right way,” said Fayyad, who studied filmmaking at the Ecole Internationale de Creation Audiovisuelle et de Realisation, in Paris. “We are not choosing sides. We do this for Syria. Not for the regime or the Islamist fighters, but for all Syrians.”

If Sout Raya is a Syria-focused, Arabic-language NPR, Rabaa may be an Islamists’ Fox News. The satellite station, which also broadcasts in Arabic, is named after the Cairo square at which Egyptian security forces forcibly cleared Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters in August, killing hundreds. (A Brotherhood spokesperson said the group is not affiliated with Rabaa TV, but it may be denying a connection so as to avoid responsibility for its content.)

The Brotherhood’s activities have received limited coverage inside Egypt since General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government shut down the group’s main newspaper and TV station and ordered Mubasher Misr, Al Jazeera’s Brotherhood-supporting Egyptian affiliate, off the air. On December 20, leading Sunni scholar and longtime Brotherhood ideologue Yusuf al-Qaradawi kicked off Rabaa TV’s inaugural broadcast by describing Morsi’s ouster as a “coup that raped the office of the Egyptian president.”

Talk that Assam Abdel Maged, a vocal Islamist politician and well-known Brotherhood supporter who has appeared in Rabaa promotional clips, will host his own show suggests the station, which broadcasts via a French satellite company, intends to remain strident and provocative. Egypt’s government, which recently designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and charged Morsi and his top aides with supporting terrorists, would be wise to point out that Maged leads the political arm of Jama’a al-Islamiya, which the U.S. and EU have declared a terrorist organization, and ask Ankara to shutter the station.

Turkey has been on both ends of such disputes in the past. Uzbekistan’s Karimova has yet to seek asylum here, but a compatriot of hers did years ago. In 1993, Turkish President Turgut Ozal welcomed Mukhamed Salih, an Uzbek writer and leading opposition figure who had been exiled by Karimov. After a bombing in Tashkent months later, Uzbekistan blamed Salih and asked Turkey to extradite him. Ankara expelled him, but refused to send him to Tashkent. Karimov has since put off several planned visits to Ankara.

Even more apropos, since 2004 Turkey has lobbied Denmark to shut down the Kurdish-language Roj TV, which it argues is a propaganda arm of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a group the U.S. and EU have also labeled a terrorist organization. Kurdish programming is severely restricted in Turkey, where Kurds have been fighting for their own homeland for decades. Ankara’s previous campaigns against similar stations in Britain and France succeeded, and the lingering disagreement has strained relations between Turkey and Denmark. “This Brotherhood station is likely to be an irritant in Ankara’s relations with Cairo,” says Ulgen.

The relationship could hardly get worse. Turkey continues to view Morsi as Egypt’s democratically elected leader six months after he was removed from office, claiming the al-Sisi government came to power in an “unacceptable coup”; in late November, the countries engaged in tit-for-tat expulsions of ambassadors. Istanbul has hosted several Brotherhood meetings in recent months, and is home to a new Turkish-language venture by Qatar-based Al Jazeera, a media franchise the al-Sisi government views as an enemy.

But to veteran Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar, who was fired from his ombudsman post at the newspaper Sabah in July over a New York Times op-ed denouncing the country’s media owners for failing to cover the Gezi Park protests, Turkey’s expansion of free expression is a step in the right direction. And it's a remarkable one in a region where free speech “is back in intensive care,” as Rana Sabbagh, executive director of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, put it in a recent column.

“Many Europeans see it that way as well,” says Baydar, citing a “Cold War pattern” emerging in the East-versus-West tussles over Syria, Turkey, and Ukraine. “I think there will be more of this activity, funded by Western circles.”

Such activity contrasts sharply with Turkey’s domestic media climate. When news of the corruption-related arrests of high-level government officials and prominent businessmen broke last week, most mainstream outlets denied the charges. The next day, veteran reporter Nazli Ilicak—working, like Baydar, for Sabah—criticized Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dismissive response to the investigation and was promptly dismissed herself.

This sort of top-down censorship has only increased since the Gezi protests this spring. A recent report from the country's leading opposition party counted nearly 80 journalists who had lost their jobs in the past six months, most after running afoul of their editors. As Sout Raya, Rabaa, and other bold, exile-run media outlets plant their flags, will Turkey’s editors be inspired to back their reporters and stand up to their government? Will they head abroad to launch independent outlets?

“There’ll be no exodus of journalists in despair,” Baydar predicts. “But we might see increased cooperation on the local level between Turkish journalists and those who come and operate here for some time, exchanging information and building shared networks.”

At least one refugee-run outlet looks set to stick around for some time. Sout Raya’s backer has pledged to fund the station for up to five years. And any resolution achieved at next month’s Syria peace talks in Switzerland is unlikely to please the station’s founders.

“I’m wanted by the Syrian regime, and the Islamic side doesn’t like me either because I’m not [a practicing] Muslim,” said Fayyad, putting on oversized headphones to listen to a new story filed from the outskirts of Aleppo. “Only if democracy wins can we go back home.”