Kareem Shaheen is the former Middle East and Turkey correspondent for the Guardian newspaper. He holds a Master´s Degree in War Studies from King´s College London, and was previously based in İstanbul, Beirut and Abu Dhabi. He was nominated for the Frontline Club award in print journalism for his coverage of the Khan Sheikhun chemical attack.
Welcome to Turkey! The purpose of this guidebook is to provide you with an overview of what you can expect when you move to the country as a foreign correspondent – from preparing for your move, to setting up and obtaining the necessary credentials in order to be accredited as a reporter, to some of the challenges of reporting from the country, with its wealth of underreported stories and fascinating vistas and settings, to its troubled border regions, taboos, military campaigns and crackdown on press freedom.
The guide will be divided into three sections:
- How to prepare for your move
- Setting yourself up as a foreign correspondent in Turkey
- Navigating some of the country’s challenges as a journalist and resident, including working with local stringers and protecting your and their rights.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive guide covering all aspects of reporting on a foreign country. In all likelihood, you have moved to Turkey from another country or region where you were already working as a reporter. So, this guide will try to adopt a middle ground position that explains some of the basic concepts of working as a foreign correspondent in the country, as well as some of the elements that make working in Turkey especially rewarding but also uniquely challenging.
The guide is also not a substitute to getting out and reporting on the ground, getting to know your new, adopted home, interviewing and socializing with as many sources from a great variety of educational, religious and cultural backgrounds as possible. Nor is it meant to supplant the advice and received wisdom of your other foreign correspondent colleagues in the field, or the local journalists who have been living and working in Turkey for decades and have amassed a wealth of knowledge that no visiting journalist could hope to accumulate.
But the guide will supplement your lived experience and the advice you receive from your colleagues, helping you establish a foothold in a new and challenging environment. It is meant to help set you on the right direction to achieving success. Hoş geldiniz ve iyi şanslar!
Turkey is always in the news. The country is a regional heavyweight, boasts the second-largest army in NATO, has a large population of over 80 million people, and has a complicated relationship with all its neighbors, whether it is the behemoth that is Russia across the Black Sea, the European Union to the West, or Iran and the Middle East on its southern and eastern borders.
The idea of Turkey as a bridge between east and west is literally true, with its largest city İstanbul straddling the two continents, but is somewhat cliched. The truth is, Turkey is part of both, its identity more complex and in flux than what you might conclude based on soundbites and news stories.
İstanbul was once the center of the Ottoman Empire, which for centuries ruled over much of the territories of the Middle East. Turkey is also majority Sunni Muslim, so there are shared religious beliefs with surrounding Middle Eastern nations. The country has historically exerted both hard and soft power on its Arab and Muslim neighbors and has inserted itself into regional disputes between the Gulf countries, for example, and has intervened militarily in the crisis in Syria by supporting rebel groups and directly fighting against Kurdish militias. It has continued to seek engagement with Iran and has tense relations with Egypt after the military overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-linked president, who was close to Ankara.
As a NATO ally, Turkey has been closely involved with the fight against the Islamic State terror group, allowing the US and its anti-ISIS coalition to use the Incirlik base to launch attacks, monitor ISIS territory with drones, and to coordinate military offensives. But American involvement has brought to the fore Turkey’s “Kurdish problem,” because Washington sought an alliance on the ground with Syrian Kurdish paramilitary forces. The group, called the People’s Protection Units (YPG), came to prominence as a self-defense force when the Syrian government was collapsing, but is also tied to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group that fought a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state, and whose leader Abdullah Öcalan is imprisoned on an island jail outside İstanbul.
Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, initially sought a rapprochement with the Kurds, easing cultural restrictions on the language and initiating a peace process. But as the process dragged on and collapsed with the conflict in Syria next door raging, violence returned to the eastern and southeastern parts of Turkey with a majority Kurdish population. The region has been largely pacified, but sporadic attacks happen on occasion, and many Kurdish opposition MPs and mayors are in jail.
Diversity within the nation-state and how it relates to Turkish identity is only one of the cultural fault-lines in the country. Another relates to the role of religion in society. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, was a staunch secularist who abolished the institution of the caliphate and sought to modernize Turkey, in the process establishing complete state control over religion. This led to decades in which religious characteristics in society were suppressed, and which established the role of the military as a guardian protecting secularism – underwriting Turkey’s history of repeated coups and coup attempts meant to correct any drift towards a more Islamic politics.
Along with draconian measures by the state like banning headscarves in public places, the state’s hardline secularism created a narrative of oppression of the country’s devout majority. President Erdoğan is himself publicly devout, and expressions of religious solidarity with oppressed Muslim populations around the world are commonplace and form part of his foreign policy. There are larger numbers of religious schools in the country, and educational reforms have raised questions over its direction.
The role of religious identity is also mixed in with nationalist politics, part of a broader global trend with the liberal world order in retreat. The ruling Justice and Development (AK) party of President Erdoğan is increasingly both nationalist and authoritarian and is allied with the ultranationalists in parliament. As the centennial of Turkey’s founding approaches in 2023, those questions of identity loom large.
But so does authoritarianism. Turkey’s constitution was transformed recently into one that concentrates much of the power in the hands of the president, who over the past few years has sidelined or even imprisoned rivals and political dissidents. Turkey is one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists, and pro-government businessmen have bought out critical media outlets. Some have been shut down and handed over to government trustee boards, while others have several of their journalists on trial. The result is a largely loyalist press and draconian responses to criticism of the government.
Turkey also endured a traumatic coup attempt in 2016 that killed 250 people and injured hundreds, and which was defeated after people of all political stripes took to the streets and braved tanks and putschist soldiers. The operation was blamed on the Fethullah Gülen movement, led by an exiled preacher based in the US, and who was once an ally of the president. The Gülen movement was entrenched in the police, military, bureaucracy and judiciary for years. Under the guise of rooting out the Gulenists, the government after the coup dismissed or arrested tens of thousands of people working in government jobs. The crackdown has expanded to encompass dissidents from all over the political spectrum.
All these interwoven threads do not begin to scratch the surface of what makes Turkey a compelling country to live in, report on, and love. There are the mega projects, like the new İstanbul airport, meant to be the largest in the world, or Canal Istanbul, which is supposed to turn the city into an island after a new waterway is dug between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea – all without much public debate or proper assessments of the environmental costs. There is the large refugee population, with over three million Syrians in the country, who found refuge in Turkey and either chose to stay or used it as a stopover on the road to Europe. There is the continuing story of Turkey’s clinically dead EU bid, the fate of northern Cyprus, its fraught relations with its historic ally, the US, the aftermath of the Gezi pro-democracy protests in 2013, the role of the military and the hunt for Gulenists, the debate over the legacy of the Armenian genocide, the ongoing retreat of LGBT rights, the role of sports and football in society, the protection of cultural heritage and the ongoing historical discoveries of great magnitude in this ancient land, like ongoing excavations at the site of the city of Troy or the monastery where Santa Claus (St. Nicholas) was first buried.
You will never want for interesting tales in Turkey, whether they be those of global or regional significance, ones with the arts and culture bent, or the simply human.
So, you have decided to work as a foreign correspondent in Turkey, or you have been assigned by your media outlet to be the resident reporter on the country. Your first step is to obtain a press visa.
The press visa is the first step towards residing in Turkey legally as a foreign correspondent, a process that will require accreditation and the procurement of a press card from the directorate general of press and information, which handles all administrative matters related to the press corps.
In order to begin the accreditation process, you must enter Turkey as a journalist with a press visa, not as a regular tourist. Press visas can usually be obtained from the Turkish consulate at the country where you are currently residing, though you might find it easier to get it from your country of origin or the country where your media outlet is based, if that happens to be in the US, UK or Europe. Many Turkish consulates have press attaches who are empowered to assist with the process of obtaining a press visa.
You will need a press visa even if you are from a country whose citizens don’t ordinarily need a visa to enter Turkey. You should ask the consulate if your spouse also needs a special visa – they are empowered to assist both you and your family in establishing residence in Turkey.
Once you have obtained the press visa, you might then want to book your flight to Turkey and begin the process of finding a place to stay and deciding where you will live. Most international press members choose to live in İstanbul, Turkey’s largest city, while some prefer to live in Ankara, where they will be closer to decision-making circles, politicians, and senior members of the state’s bureaucracy. Still, many prefer İstanbul due to its cultural and historical significance and more varied social life, and the reason that flights to Ankara for work purposes are short, frequent and inexpensive. The choice is ultimately yours but consider your needs as a correspondent. If your focus will be on immediate breaking news, particularly in the field of politics, it might make sense to be based in Ankara. If your value to your news organization is in your ability to report in-depth, nuanced features and your ability to produce a more diverse set of stories, you can be based in İstanbul and travel to Ankara and other locations around the country.
You must also consider which neighborhood you will live in, in the city of your choice. There are areas which are preferred by young foreigners in a city like İstanbul, such as Cihangir, which has numerous cafes and pubs, is frequented by young Turks of a more secular bent and offers majestic views of the sea and historical peninsula. Journalists with families tend to prefer more residential, quieter areas in the city such as Levent or Üsküdar on the Asian side of the city.
As a new arrival in Turkey, it might be tempting to seek out areas that are more familiar, that have more people from the part of the world where you come from, where you might be able to get by speaking in English, or where you feel you have shared cultural values.
But the disadvantage of such an approach is that you will be living in a bubble. Mixing exclusively with people of your own cultural background will give you a myopic view of the society in which you will be living and will only serve to reaffirm your own beliefs and prejudices. That may be comforting but will do you and your readers a disservice if your aim is to learn more about your new adopted home and tell its story to a broader audience.
Living in a neighborhood where you can simply communicate in English will also make you complacent and relegate the urgency of learning the local language, Turkish, which is absolutely essential if you want to gain any fresh insights into the country and provide a more insightful analysis that goes beyond the traditional narratives around the country and gain the trust of the subjects of your interview, all without missing the nuances of the information they are providing you. You will also have to consider the price of rent in your neighborhood of choice – apartments in areas frequented by foreigners tend to have higher real estate prices.
My recommendation is, for your first year in Turkey, to seek out neighborhoods that are predominantly Turkish, and which will force you to immerse yourself in the new culture and language and values that you will be exploring. At the very least, you could strike a good compromise to live in a bustling part of the city that is used to having young people and foreigners while it is also predominantly Turkish – examples would include the Beşiktaş neighborhood, whose residents lean strongly towards young university students, or Moda, which is a very active neighborhood close to the ferry station on the Asian side of the city, and finally, to a lesser extent, the areas around the touristic hotspot of Galata, which tend to have a more vibrant mix of Turkish and foreign residents.
To get a sense of rental costs in various neighborhoods in Turkey’s cities, you can examine the listings available on two major websites:
Most rental contracts are negotiable. The contact on each listing will be either the owner, if he/she is renting out the residence directly, or a real estate agent, whose office usually has an English speaker to assist, and will likely offer to show you several other properties based on your needs. Real estate agents in İstanbul are usually paid a fee of one-month rent from the landlord and one-month rent from you, the lessor of the property. They do not get paid if you decide not to rent any of their properties.
Once you have signed the contract, you will be required to stay in the apartment for at least one year, which is the standard length of such leases. Usually, you can only sever a contract in extreme cases, such as being forced to relocate due to your job or having to leave the country.
Once you have signed a contract, you will be ready to move into your new place in Turkey and begin the long journey of learning about the country and working there as a journalist.
The first step that you will need to take once you arrive in Turkey is to seek accreditation as a journalist and apply for residency. These are two separate, but linked, procedures. Once you are accredited by the country’s press directorate, you will be provided with a press card and an authorized photocopy of that card, which will permit you to submit your residency application. Let’s look at the procedure for both.
Permanent press accreditation
This will allow you to obtain a press card that allows you entry to most official functions, campaign events, and press conferences, in addition to allowing you to obtain a free public transport card and free entry to many museums and historical sites in the country. It is also a very important document if you are reporting from dangerous locations where state security has a larger presence. The press card will also allow you to apply for temporary residency as a journalist in Turkey.
The application for permanent accreditation is done entirely online here: https://akreditasyon.iletisim.gov.tr/
You will require the following documents for your first-time application:
- Personal photo
- Photo of the main ID pages of your passport
- Photo of your press visa and entry stamp into Turkey
- A letter from your newspaper or media outlet explaining that they have appointed you as a correspondent covering Turkey (you might be asked to provide further proof of your relationship with your media organization later, such as a signed contract)
- A letter of introduction in Turkish from your media outlet’s embassy (most embassies already have a draft of this letter available for new arrivals. If you work for a British newspaper, for example, you will need a letter of introduction from the British embassy’s press attaché)
These will all be uploaded as part of the application process. Once your application for permanent accreditation is approved, you will receive an email inviting you to collect your press card from your nearest press directorate branch.
Every year in December, the permanent accreditation is renewed. Sometimes, your press card application may be delayed if you apply for the first time at the end of the year due to the backlog of renewal applications. If you arrive in Turkey between the early spring and early autumn, this should not be an issue.
You can begin the process of applying for residency while you wait for your press card application to be completed. You can complete the process of filling out the application form online at the official website of Turkey’s migration department (http://www.e-ikamet.com/en). However, many new arrivals who do not know the system often feel more comfortable paying an agent to fill out their application forms and help them collect the necessary documents, a process that can cost up to $250 for the full range of services. You can reach out to other foreign correspondents for advice on reliable and trusted agents.
You should also have established a bank account, as it will make conducting online transactions easier with a Turkish credit card. Not all banks allow you to set up an account without a residence permit, so check with different branches before applying.
Journalists and their spouses usually require fewer documents than regular residents in order to obtain the residency permit. These are usually the following:
- Personal photos
- Passport copy, along with pages that have Turkish entry stamps, and your original passport
- Printed application form once it is completed and appointment letter
- Health insurance policy that is valid for foreigners in Turkey
- Proof of residence (such as a notarized copy of your rental contract)
- Tax number (obtained from the local tax office, and which only requires a passport)
- Photocopy of press card (provided by the press directorate when you receive your press card)
- Marriage certificate (if you are applying for residency for your spouse as well)
Once you have completed your online residence permit application, you will be able to choose a date and time for your appointment to submit your paperwork. Journalists are not bound by this timing. The press directorate will provide you with the address and name of the officials in the migration department who can accept and expedite journalists’ residency applications. You can submit your and your spouse’s documents there at the time of your choosing.
It usually takes two to three weeks for the residence permit to be delivered to the address you registered as part of your application. When you submit your application in person, you will receive a receipt that allows you to travel for up to two weeks while waiting for your residence permit.
Once you receive your press card, you can begin legally practicing your job as a correspondent in Turkey. And once you receive your residence permit, you have become a legal resident of the country and can travel in and out of Turkey without restrictions.
A Note on Language
One of your top priorities when you move to Turkey should be to begin learning the language.
Modern Turkish is a beautiful and structured language with clear grammatical rules, and which, in addition to its Turkic roots, borrows heavily from Persian, Arabic, French and English vocabulary to form a language that is both ancient and modern.
The argument for learning Turkish is based on both logic and practicality.
Like any newcomer to a society one is unfamiliar with, the key to beginning to understand the culture and history and modern debates is to learn the language, study its nuances, and engage with locals who have a stake in those debates about the direction of their country.
Covering a country without access to its rich linguistic heritage is myopic at best. English speakers are more likely to have been educated abroad or in schools with a larger foreign contingent of teachers or professors and are therefore likely to have a different view of current affairs and government policies than, for instance, a Turkish ultranationalist or a farmer or coal miner far away from the cosmopolitan centers of İstanbul or İzmir. This is not meant to imply that one opinion is more valid than the other, just that they are different, and allowing oneself to be influenced primarily by the views of well-traveled English-speakers in the country is likely to portray a one-sided view of society, and to miss important social trends and concerns.
This is particularly a problem in a country with strong nationalistic values like Turkey. President Erdoğan, for example, always speaks in Turkish in public appearances. Many politicians, even those who speak English, prefer to portray themselves as patriotic by speaking in Turkish or are more comfortable expressing their ideas and philosophy in their mother tongue, rather than in English.
You will also find that many young Turks are reluctant to speak in English with a journalist even though many have studied the language in school. This may be due to shyness or to inadequate practice outside of the classroom, but the result is that it is very difficult to work as a journalist with limited resources in Turkey without knowing the language.
There is little choice for a new correspondent in the country beyond relying on the services of a translator for the first few months, or perhaps the first year, of their tenure in the country. But this must be combined with intensive, immersive work to study the language and achieve fluency as quickly as possible. You may find that you still need to rely on a translator after that initial learning period, but you will grow increasingly confident in your use of the language as you speak more of it, make friends, socialize, interview people, watch television and stroll through the streets of Turkey’s cities.
Fortunately, there are ample resources for new journalists to learn Turkish. These include:
- Group classes in one of the several institutes based in İstanbul, which provide intensive daily courses and practical assignments
- Sign up for private tutoring at the more advanced levels if you can afford it
- Free online applications that can help build your vocabulary
- Consume pop culture such as the popular Turkish soap operas, films and songs that are often available with subtitles
- Attempt to converse with locals in Turkish as well as with Turkish friends, and avoid resorting to English or your mother tongue
- Spend time in public places that are not frequented by foreigners in order to absorb more of the words and the language. You will understand more as your knowledge base grows
- Make more Turkish friends and practice the language with them
Reaching out to contacts
In your first few weeks in Turkey, you might find it helpful to meet as many potential contacts and sources for your stories as possible, in order to get a grasp on the important issues affecting public opinion. You should generally aim to cast your net as wide as possible – you never know who will provide the tip-off for your next big story, and a bigger network of sources and acquaintances will ensure you have a stronger grasp of all elements of a story or development.
When you become an officially accredited journalist, you will be added to a mailing list informing correspondents of all official functions, events and press conferences that they can attend. In addition, most key ministries and official bodies such as the presidency and the foreign ministry, as well as the main parties in the Grand National Assembly (the Turkish parliament) have press officers who are specialized in dealing with international media. Often these individuals will be an initial point of contact in those institutions, but could also arrange for interviews with senior officials, be able to provide on the record comments when needed and be useful potential sources. You should always strive of course to check information provided by official sources, but they are also an integral part of any story exploring government conduct or requiring official responses from the state.
Although it is out of date to a great extent, this guide from the press directorate lists all the phone numbers of the main government departments as well as press officers in Turkish diplomatic missions abroad:
You should also establish contact with key political and economic pressure groups, activist collectives, prominent intellectuals and personalities, among others, depending on the expected focus of your reporting. This might include the following:
- Prominent MPs and the leaders of the largest political parties
- Editors of influential newspapers and media outlets
- Human rights and press freedom lawyers and pressure groups, both local and international
- Diplomatic missions with a large presence in Turkey
- Representatives of Syrian opposition groups
- Officials in refugee agencies and other humanitarian aid and relief organizations
- Academics specializing in various fields such as modern Turkish history, political relations, Ankara’s role in the Cold War, etc.
- Representatives from ethnic and religious groups that have traditionally faced persecution in the region, such as Kurds and Armenians
- Environmental groups, experts and activists
- Archaeologists and experts in monument preservation
- Trade and industry unions
- Local and foreign journalists based in the country
- Prominent columnists, authors and artists
- Political advisers and analysts close to various movements and currents in the country
- Religious leaders from various sects and communities
This is not meant to be a comprehensive list but should hopefully offer an adequate starting point for your initial canvassing once you arrive in Turkey, and its usefulness will vary depending on whether your mandate is to cover politics and security issues, broader regional dynamics, business, lifestyle or cultural issues. Still, you will find it both rewarding and useful to have a broad range of contacts and social acquaintances across the spectrum of issues in Turkey, allowing you a glimpse into the underlying dynamics in the country, and providing you with a subtler understanding of what drives some of the key debates.
It is also important to note that there is no substitute for face to face meetings with sources and members of the community. The phone will only get you so far. Like much of the region surrounding it, and due to various security concerns, most sources are likely to require a process of cultivation and trust building during face to face meetings before they are likely to confide crucial information. Put in the effort and work hard, show respect and empathy for the people you meet and interview, and your efforts will be rewarded.
On a final note, it may help in the preparation phase when you first arrive in Turkey to spend some time reading various reports and books on the country and its modern history, recent political developments and human rights reports, as well as the coverage of other foreign media outlets and local news reports, while also understanding their political affiliations. It will take some time before you form a broader picture of what kind of news reports, and from where, you can trust. Always do your due diligence and do not take information at face value.
On books, there are plenty of lists of recommended books online. The important point is to try to consume a varied diet of books – from mass market literature and world-famous authors like Orhan Pamuk and Elif Şafak to Turkish legends like Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, Sabahattin Ali, Nazım Hikmet and Yaşar Kemal. Most bookstores with English books also stock translated Turkish literature and books on Turkish history and the country’s minorities, as well as its political and cultural movements and trends. Explore those, and hopefully in a year’s time you can revisit them in the original Turkish.