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article imageIstanbul thrives as Arab media hub despite Khashoggi anxiety

By Ezzedine SAID (AFP)     Oct 16, 2018 in World

Istanbul, the buzzing Turkish metropolis where Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared two weeks ago, has since the Arab Spring become a hub for Arabic-language media despite Turkey's own reputation for eroding press freedoms.

Arabic-language journalists from countries who have found refuge in the city from authoritarian regimes or war say they have been rattled by the disappearance of Khashoggi but still believe they enjoy greater freedoms in Turkey than at home.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, also considered dividing his time between Washington, where he lived since 2017, and Istanbul, where he was seeking to arrange the paperwork to marry his Turkish fiancee.

But he has not been seen since October 2 after he visited Riyadh's consulate in Istanbul.

El-Sharq  launched in 2014  employs 135 journalists and technicians
El-Sharq, launched in 2014, employs 135 journalists and technicians

Turkish officials say they believe he was murdered, a claim initially denied by Saudi Arabia although unconfirmed US reports have said Riyadh may be about to suggest he died during an interrogation that went wrong.

Rallies in front of the consulate demanding answers after Khashoggi's disappearance have brought together Arab journalists and intellectuals based in Istanbul, showing the strength of the exiled community.

- 'Be more careful' -

The community is dominated by nationals from countries caught up in the uprisings during the Arab Spring such as Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya.

One of the most visible of Khashoggi's Istanbul-based supporters has been Ayman Nour, the Egyptian chief of opposition broadcaster El-Sharq, who also heads the secular and liberal Egyptian opposition party, Al-Ghad.

"Istanbul has given us a free space that doesn't exist in the Arab world, not to mention the fact that Turkey supported the Arab Spring which gave birth to the majority of the media based here," 54-year-old Nour said in his Istanbul office.

Nour has been one of the most visible of Khashoggi's Istanbul-based supporters
Nour has been one of the most visible of Khashoggi's Istanbul-based supporters

Although the editorial line of numerous media established in Istanbul is favourable to political Islam-based parties, El-Sharq prides itself on bringing journalists from different political currents.

Nour served jail time under former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and then opposed both Islamist ex-president Mohamed Morsi and current leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who came to power after Morsi was ousted by the military in July 2013.

The channel employs 135 journalists and technicians, and launched in 2014, owing much of its success in the Arab world to its main programme "Maa Moataz".

The show is presented five days a week by star journalist Moataz Matar, known for his lyrical musings.

A longtime friend of Khashoggi, Nour said the his case had scratched the sense of security of opposition Arab journalists based in Istanbul.

"That makes us realise that a risk exists, even if it is not large. We must be more careful," he warned.

- 'Istanbul or prison' -

Syrian Rashad Abdelkader, editor-in-chief of the widely-followed news website Arabi Post, said it is "easier to bring together journalists of different Arab nationalities in Turkey".

Abdelkader said the website "does not consider itself to be opposition media against this or that Arab regime but aims to offer readers quality and transparent journalism".

Owned by Wadah Khanfar, former director general of Al-Jazeera, the website employs 35 journalists and around 15 casual contributors. The site receives around 17 million views every month, Abdelkader said.

Another key figure in the Istanbul Arabic media scene is Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman, winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her role in the pro-democracy calls in Yemen and who runs the Balqees channel.

- 'May seem contradictory' -

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi went missing on October 2
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi went missing on October 2

Yasin Aktay, a senior official of Turkey's ruling party and adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said for many Arab journalists the alternative to living in Turkey was "prison in their country."

"What happened to Jamal Khashoggi aimed to maybe send a message to them that they are not safe here. But Turkey remains a safe country," Aktay said.

The appreciation Arab journalists have for Turkey comes in stark contrast to many of their Turkish colleagues, who complain of a drastic decrease in press freedoms in the last half decade under Erdogan.

While Arab journalists operate in Istanbul with little interference, Turkish journalists can be subjected to heavy censorship from their own media -- usually owned by big industrial companies -- and even risk arrest if they overstep the line.

Rallies have taken place in front of the Saudi consulate demanding answers after Khashoggi's d...
Rallies have taken place in front of the Saudi consulate demanding answers after Khashoggi's disappearance

"It can seem contradictory," said Erol Onderoglu, Turkey representative of Reporters Without Border (RSF), which ranks Turkey 157 out of 180 countries in its 2018 World Press Freedom index.

Onderoglu added that the Arabic coverage portrays Turkey as "still a model or an important diplomatic force."

"The risk to their (Arab journalists') safety would not allow them to go too far in their criticism of the Turkish government," he said.

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