November 21, 2015

Özgür Düşünce rises from ashes of gov’t-seized Bugün daily

On Tuesday the Özgür Düşünce (Free Thought) daily, published by a group of journalists who were fired from the İpek Media Group after it was seized under extraordinary circumstances in a government-led operation aiming to silence critical media, hit newsstands.

In the aftermath of the takeover of the İpek Media Group, which includes the Bugün daily along with several other media outlets, at dawn on Oct. 28 by trustees accompanied by the police, a number of journalists were immediately fired and the editorial policies of the Bugün and Millet dailies, as well as the Bugün and Kanaltürk TV channels, were changed into pro-government ones.

Since then, several journalists, some of whom faced insults from the trustees and the police from the first moment of the seizure, have been putting their heads together to publish a new newspaper with an editorial policy similar to the unlawfully confiscated Bugün.

However, the group of journalists who were eager to put out their own daily in response to the seizure to illustrate that they would not bow to the government's oppression and due to their sense of responsibility towards their readers, lacked the necessary equipment or materials to publish a daily. But this did not deter them.

Mehmet Yılmaz, the former publishing coordinator at Bugün, and less than 10 journalists had already decided to publish a new daily and started looking for ways to publish the Özgür Bugün (Free Bugün) daily. Özgür Bugün, the transitional name of the new daily, was first published on the Internet on on Oct. 30 while the print version hit newsstands a few days later. Bugün's fired Editor-in-Chief Erhan Başyurt posted a tweet showing the first page of Özgür Bugün in contrast to Bugün, whose editorial policy had been changed to a pro-government stance.

After the necessary legal arrangements for the new daily were made on Nov. 2, Özgür Bugün finally went on sale with the original team who was working for Bugün prior to the takeover. Hence, Bugün was resurrected in the form of Özgür Bugün.

Zaman raided by police for printing Özgür Bugün

In the first stage, 40,000 copies of Özgür Bugün were printed. However, the printing facilities for Bugün refused to print the daily as the trustees had verbally warned the owners of the printing houses not to print Özgür Bugün.

The printing house belonging to the Zaman daily later agreed to print Özgür Bugün. Many subscribers who were unable to receive their copies in the first few days were able to receive the paper just a few days later.

However, the police conducted a raid on the Zaman headquarters and the printing house on Nov. 11 on the orders of a prosecutor after the Bugün trustees filed a complaint stating Özgür Bugün had damaged the prestige and brand value of Bugün. The raid at night was accompanied by a police helicopter hovering above, with its powerful searchlight illuminating the building as reporters gathered outside to watch the police storming their offices.

Even though the prosecutor had ordered only three issues of Özgür Bugün to be confiscated from the printing house, the police unlawfully extended the search into the newspaper's headquarters and ransacked the news desks of Aksiyon, Zaman and Today's Zaman. Hence, the printing of the eight-page Özgür Bugün was stopped.

Brand new Özgür Düşünce published

In the meantime, preparations to establish a company that would allow the publication of a new daily were ongoing. This was so that the distribution company could distribute the new daily in accordance with the law.

Finally, the two-week transition period passed and the first issue of Özgür Düşünce came out. The process of publishing Özgür Düşünce was marked by a series of difficulties for the journalists. A team comprising 25 journalists and page designers under the leadership of Yılmaz as editor-in-chief started working on Özgür Düşünce in a small apartment measuring around 65 square meters.

"When we rented the flat we are working in now, the journalists cleaned the office and their own tables and even made their own tea when needed [compared to the very comfortable environment at Bugün]. We did a lot of extra work in addition to journalism," Yılmaz explains.

This process seems to have taught the Özgür Düşünce team the value of collective journalism, and Yılmaz believes the daily's future is bright.

In addition, many freelance journalists and others working for other dailies supported Özgür Düşünce by allowing the daily to use their special reports. Yılmaz views this self-sacrifice and professional solidarity as something that will go down in the history of the industry. The apartment rented by the daily belongs to Can Erzincan TV, whose owner Recep Aktaş also offered his channel's technical facilities to the former employees of Bugün and Kanaltürk TV channels to continue broadcasting their TV programs.

Thus, many subscribers were able to receive their copies, and an environment that made it possible for many sacked journalists to continue to do their jobs was created.

Over 100,000 copies printed

After the team behind Özgür Düşünce found a printing house, 117,000 copies were distributed to 25,000 points across the country.

When asked about the editorial board's plans for the daily, Yılmaz told Sunday's Zaman their first goal is to survive and reach sales figures that will allow them to subsidize the publishing of Özgür Düşünce. Everyone involved in the project is aware they are only relying on sales to remain afloat.

“We try to keep our spending minimal. All journalists and columnists like Nazlı Ilıcak and Ergun Babahan are not seeking high salaries in exchange for contributing to Özgür Düşünce. This is an unprecedented sacrifice,” Yılmaz notes.

For now, the daily is 16 pages long and its price is TL 1. According to Yılmaz, the price is a little higher when compared to other dailies with more pages. However, this is the only way for the daily to survive since it does not have any advertising revenues.

If readers continue to support Özgür Düşünce and its sales figure reaches between 50,000-80,000, then they might avert the threat of succumbing to low circulation that would result in the daily being closed down.

“The political environment dominated by the government pressure on critical media and dissenters is obvious. Civic movements are stamped out. By publishing Özgür Düşünce, we are trying to demonstrate that the daily can fight for democratic principles and the rule of law without engaging in any political project or ideological polarization. This is our mission that places emphasis on the name of Özgür Düşünce,” Yılmaz adds.

‘Freedom inspired naming of new daily'

Commenting on the name of the daily, Yılmaz confesses he realized how the word freedom is so central to life in the aftermath of the government oppression on the media and journalists through detentions and investigations.

“I didn't know freedom is such a great word. This term rose in the West and was transferred to the Middle East as well as the rest of the world. Freedom has always represented being against the state's mechanism of regulating people. However, in the countries like Turkey, bowing to the state has been a constant. What I learnt from this process of unlawfulness was to recognize the value of freedom. That is why we named the daily Özgür Düşünce. We aim to put out a daily that is home to all different political backgrounds and lifestyles. Özgür Düşünce has a strong reference to this idea and is one of the most meaningful names that summarizes the process of oppression that the country is currently undergoing. I believe Özgür Düşünce will turn into a daily that symbolizes the importance of the rule of law and defending freedoms and rights,” he stresses.

Underlining that doing journalism today is more like walking on broken glass, Yılmaz said: “People are afraid to be in the media. We are striving to introduce a democracy similar to the ones in many developed and civilized societies. No one should have special privileges, and everyone should be treated equally before the law.”

Published on Today's Zaman, 21 November 2015, Saturday