Author: Pinar Tremblay
Posted December 14, 2017
Can one person change the dreary, despondent state of Turkish media?
Zeynep (Zeyno) Erkan, a Turkish woman living in New York, did just that with her reporting on the US court case against Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab.
I learned of Erkan a few days before the trial started in November. At the time, I had the impression that she was an independent journalist. But it’s more accurate to call her a citizen journalist.
Erkan, 37, provides a brief biography of herself in a YouTube video. She graduated in 2003 from Istanbul’s Bogazici University with a degree in international relations, then worked in various European cities. She now works for the United Nations in New York.
After months of dogged reporting on the trial, Erkan informed her followers Dec. 8 that she would no longer be covering the trial from the courthouse. Many fans concluded that possible complaints about her to the UN might have put a stop to her courthouse reporting. She still follows the trial and provides commentary on social media.
So, how was Erkan’s reporting different from the mainstream Turkish press? Ever since the pretrial proceedings, Erkan had attended each court session and took verbatim notes. Since only a handful of accredited court journalists are allowed to have phones in the courtroom, most of the Turkish journalists have to wait for the session to conclude to report their impressions. Erkan would report via cellphone video as soon as she got a wireless connection. Her videos are from random locations near the court. From time to time you can hear Christmas music in the background if she is at a cafe. She would say “Hi, my dear friends,” and conclude the videos with a few comments and by almost always saying, “I love you all, dear friends.”
But Erkan never robotically read her notes. For example, Zarrab has admitted that he bribed Turkish officials with expensive watches. One day in court, the prosecutor asked Zarrab to identify a watch and its recipient. Erkan reported that Zarrab, referring to then-Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, “blurted out, ‘He has so many watches I don’t know which one this one is, because I lost count.’” Erkan added, “And we just broke into loud laughter in the courtroom.”
Or she would say, “The judge asked Zarrab, ‘Did you also bribe [another official]?’ And Zarrab said, ‘No, I didn’t need to because I was already giving bribes to the minister of economy and the director of Halkbank,’ the most senior actors, then again we all laughed out loud.” Erkan added, “We were laughing at this miserable situation. But why should we cry? It’s those who committed these crimes who should worry.”
Having followed the case for more than six months and being savvy with the terminology in English and Turkish, Erkan reported the case with ease. She didn’t just read the names, but reminded her viewers of their significance. She also referenced the December 2013 graft probe in Turkey to help her viewers connect the dots.
Most Turkish reporters had to censor their observations or report their stories tabloid-style — such as writing about “Watch Man Yusuf,” the story about the man who sold Zarrab all the watches, and the angle of Zarrab’s celebrity wife’s initiation of divorce proceedings. But Erkan’s reporting was informative, detailed and timely. It was also accurate. Her notes matched the reports from the courthouse. If she missed a word or could not understand it, Erkan would inform her viewers candidly.
For those waiting to hear what was really transpiring at the trial, Erkan was a sight for sore eyes. Still, what attracted followers to her coverage was her genuine concern for justice and her solid knowledge of the case. Watching Turkish news — with its censorship, carefully scripted wording and heavily made-up faces of presenters — can be tiring. So Erkan’s sincerity, her down-to-earth and carefree appearance, and her uncensored reporting were particularly attractive to the Turkish diaspora in the West, as well as to Turks who have grown weary of tabloid-style reporting of political news.
There are dozens of Erkan-related accounts on social media sites. Despite Al-Monitor’s multiple requests, Erkan declined to provide comment for this article, so we weren’t able to verify which accounts are actually hers.
As Erkan’s popularity increased, so did the difficulties she faced in reporting. First, her Facebook page was hacked and her reporting was delayed. Then, during her live broadcasts, she began receiving phone calls of unknown origin that repeatedly disrupted her connection. One caller even left a voicemail cheering for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was implicated in the bribery case. With the help of her tech-savvy fans, Erkan overcame these hiccups and continued reporting despite occasional delays.
Although Erkan’s notoriety grew, only a few media outlets mentioned her. Odatv, a leftist nationalist media network, posted a piece titled “No One Reported the Zarrab Trial Better” and included a comment from one viewer who wrote, “This girl, all alone, is much bigger than all of Dogan media.” (Dogan is one of the biggest media conglomerates in Turkey.)
Her critics also multiplied. They were unhappy about her tone of voice, her hair color or her casual outfits. Her speedy rise to fame brought harsh criticism from the seculars and threats from pro-government media outlets. For example, journalism professor Esra Arsan wrote a column criticizing Erkan’s reporting as sensationalistic. Arsan was not pleased that Turks were following the trial through a volunteer reporter whose style was far from traditional. Arsan said Erkan displayed her anti-government stand unabashedly and was far from objective.
Another seasoned journalist, Cuneyt Ozdemir, who came to New York to report on the trial, saw Erkan as competition. Ozdemir told his viewers, “I have 27 years of experience in journalism,” then criticized amateur journalists. Ozdemir also reported that he had told Erkan, “Be careful. You became a phenomenon. … It looks like you burned all your bridges.” This was seen as a warning that she chould no longer go back to Turkey safely, and it resulted in seven pages of commentary on the Eksi Sozluk humor website.
But none of these critics came close to Akit TV, a pro-government media outlet that introduced Erkan as a follower of Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan considers a bitter enemy. The reporter called her a mole and a liar and said, “This [Gulen] hack should be silenced as soon as possible.” Erkan told her viewers that she would be reporting this threat to US authorities, and that she would not be intimidated or silenced by threats.
Erkan’s candid reporting tells us there is a demand for detailed coverage of politics in Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of people watch Erkan because she provides straight facts and avoids comments on the attire of lawyers, as some Turkish reporters have done.
The Turkish government is quickly extending what it sees as its jurisdiction to the diaspora in the Western world. Living and reporting from a country where you can exercise First Amendment rights might mean you are unable to travel back home.
Just one courageous woman with a cellphone was able to reach Turkey to tell the truth. Citizen journalists are here to stay.
And that might be Erkan’s most crucial impact on Turkey: giving hope for justice and the right to access information.