The stories worth telling
A two-time winner of the European Union Investigative Journalist Prize, a fighter for equal rights, justice, and the truth, Burcu is outspoken, consistent, hard-working and remains one of the bravest voices in Turkish media.
“I cannot stand it when a human being is humiliated, so that’s the reason I work in journalism — to remind people they have rights. It can be a child that is being abused, it can be a migrant who is tortured, or it can be a woman who is subject to violence by her partner.” Тhis is how Burcu Karakas, a Turkish journalist at Deutsche Welle, describes her motivation to work in the media. She has been covering a range of topics for over a decade, including female and minority rights, migration, and free speech.
The stories worth telling
In 2016 Burcu Karakas noticed several articles in the media, all on a very grim topic. The pieces mentioned the deaths of young women in the South-eastern Turkish town of Van. She would read a by-line one day, then another the next day, until it reached more than 10 such cases in a month. Burcu became both worried and interested in this story, so she asked her editors if they would send her to the city and they agreed. She talked to the women’s families and tried to figure out what had provoked such awful tragedies.
“Some of them were around the age of 18, they were really young, and some of them were children'', she remembers. She describes the phenomenon as “contagious”. “When [the women] learned that a friend of theirs committed suicide, they wanted to do the same because they felt so desperate”, the journalist explains. These women lived in restrictive conditions, in communities that oppressed them in every way. “First of all, not all of them were able to finish their education. Second, there was this family pressure: they would ask them to get married early and then, in some cases, there was physical or verbal violence [at home]. Also, they did not have any economic independence. They depended on their families [for money]”, Burcu says and adds that she believes economic independence is extremely important for women. “When you get your own money, it gives you a chance to build your own life”, she says.
While she was doing her research in Van, the journalist noticed the conditions that created a toxic environment for these women. “Basically, they didn't have a chance to build their own lives and they felt trapped. The only way out for some of them was killing themselves”, she explains.
However, Burcu points out that the deaths are called “suspicious” because there was no investigation that concluded definitively that these women took their own lives, as opposed to being murdered. Her article provoked institutions to begin an investigation. Unfortunately, there has been no result and it led nowhere.
Journalism and her personal story
Burcu Karakas is one of the strongest journalistic voices in Turkey. She studied political science, and in the United States, she earned a Masters in International Relations and International Communication. She began an internship at a Turkish newspaper, Milliyet Daily, and that is when her passion for journalism appeared. “I liked it very much, but when I finished my masters, I never thought that I would actually start a career there because they pay very little money and they don’t give you insurance. However, I just loved it so much, I couldn't let it go, so I started my internship there”. Even if the working conditions were not quite attractive, they did not discourage her from taking up the role of a journalist. “I basically fell in love with the profession and now it has been 11 years”, says Burcu.
Like any other intern and newly hired staffer, in the beginning she covered a plethora of topics, but she adds that “it is the way you learn [how to do ] journalism since you gain experience”. Afterwards she began covering minority rights and female issues — and coincidentally, it was about the time where the female movement became more outspoken and present in the country. “The public in Turkey started to know my name due to my coverage of women’s issues. That was also a period when the topic was on the rise. It is always [current], but now women were getting more and more power”, she remembers.
But while women were becoming more courageous and candid, discrimination remains. Even Karakas herself has experienced it, though initially she says that she has not been a victim of it in her professional life. Later, she realises that this is not the case when she starts remembering stories from her early career, including a flashback of one of her first bosses.
“After I was fired from Milliyet, I worked for an online media platform. Of course, the boss was a man. He is a respected journalist in Turkey. I worked there for more than a year and I never got paid. I knew they had no money going in, but at some point, the platform started to make money yet I still had no salary. After a while, I said I would quit and would get jobs from other platforms. I told my boss he had not paid me, and I had worked there for more and a year. He replied: Well, but you are married. You don't pay rent.”, Burcu recalls.
She laughed and left. Yet she did not forget that case as it is quite symbolic of the way society treats women in the country and there is still a perception that they deserve less in a way. “No one would say this to a man”, the journalist says.
As for the media as a work environment, she believes there is a glass ceiling. Even though she herself had the opportunity to work in the field, to cover earthquakes and to be in conflict zones, there is still male domination. “I see men networking and how men in the media have each other’s backs and solidarity against women. I see that and I don’t like it. When we say male dominated media, how is that possible? It is possible because of the male network that excludes females”, Burcu elucidates. “There are these men-dominated TV programmes and only the presenters are female. They even talk about women’s rights. Six men talking about women’s rights on TV. It’s just ridiculous!”, she laughs bitterly.
Abortion: fighting for a right
One of the other most significant topics Karakas has worked on is abortion in Turkey. Even though it is officially legal and there should be no obstacles for women in the early stages of their pregnancies to have one performed, in practice it turns out it is quite difficult for that to happen. The journalist believes President Recep Erdogan’s rhetoric played a big role in the change in the way abortion is perceived. “In 2012, he said that he does not appreciate abortion”, she remembers.
After that, hospitals and doctors seemed to become less prone to perform abortions. Burcu Karakas decided to investigate whether that was true. “I called the hospitals and said: I am a woman and I want to get an abortion. Until the 10th week of pregnancy, it is legal [according to Turkish law]. So I called four or five hospitals, and they said they don’t perform it and that it is illegal. I asked them whether they were sure, and they confirmed that it was. Afterwards, I asked the Ministry of Health if abortion is still practiced in state hospitals and they said “Of course”, the journalist says. She revealed that was a serious discrepancy in what was a woman’s right in law and what was her actual situation. “In theory, abortion in Turkey is there, but in practice, it does not exist. In Istanbul, for example, there are tens of state hospitals, but you can get an abortion only in two. And there are 20 million people living in Istanbul”, Burcu says. She explains that the government wants to change the perception of abortion through an illusion and unfortunately, it is working.
Brave new atmosphere
Before, the government in Turkey was fragile and [cared] about press coverage. They would take it seriously. Now they just silence it. There is no debate. But it doesn't mean there is no reaction”, the journalist observed. Even though the government, and the Ministry of Health in particular, denies there is an issue with abortion, the truth is there is one. Thus, a debate can happen due to the country’s active female rights movement.
“Social media is the battlefield for such discussions, not just the streets. Younger generations are quite capable of using the power of social media in their field. They know how to raise their voices. In general, young women are much more outspoken. They are more powerful in articulating anything related to harassment. They are not afraid, and they use social media to say a man harassed them. We did not see that before”, she explains.
Burcu says that younger men treat women better sometimes than older generations do. Yet part of the reason, she explains, is that they are afraid their names will appear in public associated with an accusation and they will be exposed.
Even though times are difficult and human rights and freedom of speech tend to be pushed into a corner, Burcu Karakas believes that the journalists’ role is still important. “We still have the power to irritate people in power and, in a way, to mobilise people”, she says.