Live from Istanbul, it's unaffiliated Israeli bloggers
Independent Israeli journalists flew to Turkey to immerse themselves in the action, staying with friends of friends and filing reports by smartphone.
When Avi Blecherman arrived in Turkey on Thursday morning, he posted on his Facebook page: “In Istanbul on my way to Taksim. Bring it on!” In Istanbul, he met Ilyan Marshak, who had also just arrived. Bloggers Yuval Ben-Ami and May Castelnuovo returned from a trip there on Wednesday night.
All four had traveled to Turkey, at nobody's behest, to cover the protests against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on behalf of the unaffiliated media. Two of them drummed up donations with remarkable speed to finance their trips.
A social activist, Ilyan Marshak had documented the protests in Israel using his smartphone and the Ustream video streaming service. Today a freelance journalist and member of the "Tel Aviv Times" news aggregation venture, discussing his trip via chat a few days before his flight, he decided to go to Turkey as the most of the news comes from foreign media, and “the public needs reports in Hebrew,” he explained.
Hoping to tap his regular readers, Marshak started an online crowd-funding campaign with the aim of raising NIS 5,000. He found himself with support from high profile figures such as journalist Rino Tzror, who participated in the fundraising video, but only managed to raise 58 percent of the amount. Tzror for his part found Marshak donors who covered his plane tickets and accommodation.
Author and blogger Yuval Ben-Ami decided to travel to Turkey before having a clue how he'd fund the trip. Also discussing his trip via chat while still in Turkey earlier this week, he said that his partner Ruthie Pliskin told him that in his place she'd go to Istanbul immediately. "Within ten minutes I had a non-refundable ticket. I called May Castelnuovo to cancel the plans we’d made to travel to Nablus the next day, and she jokingly asked me if she could come. I didn't realize she was kidding. Now she’s here.”
Ben-Ami and Castelnuovo, who studies photography at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, began to look for media outlets that would publish their stories and fund their trip. None of the mainstream Hebrew or English media organizations bit, at least in time, and in some didn't even answer. The two wound up publishing on the left-leaning digital magazine +972, which Ben-Ami helped establish. The collective that runs +972 covered half of the expenses. Ben-Ami professes himself relieved at the outcome: they were freed of the constraints of an established news outlet and could follow their own concepts.
Some birthday present: Money to reach Istanbul
As for Blecherman, he covered the events in Turkey on behalf of the “Social Justice – Situation Room” Facebook page.
This project started out in a room on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard as a way of recruiting protestors for the so-called "Million Man" social-justice protest (ultimately some 400,000 are believed to have shown up). Now it's an unaffiliated media outlet that reports on social issues in Israel and abroad.
Blecherman isn’t actually a journalist: he’s a freelancer with the Havaya center that holds civil marriage ceremonies for Jews who'd rather avoid the rabbinate, and also conducts workshops in schools on behalf of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel. But he devotes most of his time to working on voluntary journalism projects.
“Truth be told, the trip was funded in a pretty remarkable way,” he said in a telephone interview before his trip. “Monday was my birthday, and I wrote on Facebook that I really want to go to Istanbul. I had planned to fund it myself, and suddenly a member of the Situation Room, Oded Rosen, started a meme: ‘Let's send Avi Blecherman to Istanbul.’ Within a couple of hours he’d raised the money."
People donated for all sorts of reasons, he says: "They wanted to see things from a citizen’s viewpoint rather than that of the mainstream press, and they appreciate the work I do covering the protest in Israel…They put me in touch with Turkish friends who are really happy we came, and who want us to tell the story.” True, his equipment was hardly state of the art, Blecherman said – a cellphone, a wireless modem and a laptop, but the idea was to record events by live streaming, including interviews – "to take the pulse."
“The feeling in Istanbul is that the ground is on fire, that everybody's involved in the struggle in all sorts of ways,” says Castelnuovo over Facebook chat in a Jerusalem café, where she and Ben-Ami are writing the last chapter in their series of articles about the journey. “I realized how important it was to document the struggle, as the Turkish press isn't free and is heavily censored.” Until now her photography had been confined to the streets and Arab villages of Israel: until Turkey she hadn't experienced tear gas or pepper spray, she confides.
Asked why people need reports from Israeli journalists when there are so many members of the foreign and Turkish press in the field, Marshak says, “People there, like in Israel, are thirsty for change…We have a mission to give them a voice, as their voice on social networks is censored and blocked by the Turkish government."
They also travelled outside of Istanbul, interviewing as many people as possible, from police to protestors, Ben-Ami says. They returned to Taksim Square in Istanbul, the hub of the unrest, just in time for a tear-gas attack.
“Despite the chaos, everyone looked out for one another," Castelnuovo adds. "Both times that Yuval and I were hit by tear gas, we received immediate treatment from other demonstrators. They didn’t leave us until they knew we were ok.”
When asked if she feels there is a significant difference between her work and the work of established journalists, Castelnuovo answers: “Very much so. I felt that they didn’t put themselves in the same amount of danger we did, or delve as deeply into the conflict…I think their first impressions of the struggle gave them the whole story, while for us it was an opening into something deeper.”
Apparently the established media didn't always appreciate the newcomers. "One established reporter, never mind who, said to me cynically, 'So you're a journalist and activist?' I said I was apparently neither the one nor the other. Or maybe a combination of both, and it's called a blogger," relates Ben-Ami. The established reporter answered, 'The combination is called a wanker.'" If so, avers Ben-Ami, then he's glad to be a wanker.