As the social media team of a prominent news media company, what would you do if your media headquarters was raided by machine gun-wielding soldiers who threatened reporters and attempted to choke journalism?
At my newspaper in Turkey, the daily Hürriyet, we opted to broadcast the whole raid on Facebook Live. Without missing a beat, one of our columnists who resisted the soldiers then appeared on our regular show, to answer our readers’ questions about the invasion.
This happened during the July 15, 2016, coup attempt in Turkey, during which coup-plotters raided Hürriyet offices to halt the operations of our Web site, which strongly stood by democracy in the face of a severe blow. At around 3 a.m. on July 16, a captain leading a group of soldiers landed their military helicopter in Hürriyet’s backyard. They tried to enter the building through the front gate, but security had shut it down.
Our building had been attacked by pro-government protesters the year before, so we had reinforced our gates and replaced our windows with bullet-proof glass. The soldiers were only able to gain entry by taking two security guards hostage, firing into the air, and threatening to kill them if the door was not opened.
Inside the building, we were busy covering the breathtaking night: Starting at 10 p.m. the night before, those involved with the coup had been bombing the parliament building and killing civilian protesters at many locations. And then, they came for us.
The captain entered the building with his soldiers and ordered them to “not hesitate to shoot” while forcing journalists to stop their work. As two soldiers used the elevator and arrived on the second floor (where I work), one of the members of our social media team quickly hid himself and took the stairs up to the fifth floor, which was empty and darker.
From the balcony he could see into the atrium below and was able to broadcast the whole raid live over our Facebook channel, while hiding from the soldiers. Most of our remaining journalists were forced out of the building at gunpoint. Although it was almost 4 a.m., millions of Turks watched those videos.
Some journalists managed to hide themselves in the building and some were taken hostage by the soldiers, but a police operation in the early morning freed them all. Hurriyet.com.tr and its social media accounts continued to operate with no interruption during the coup attempt, and we produced the most-read and most-shared Turkish content that night.
We stayed loyal to our duty as journalists, to our democracy as citizens, and to our newspaper — the name of which means “freedom” in Turkish.
All the staff returned to our building in the early morning, having enjoyed no sleep for more than 24 hours. There we met with Murat Yetkin, the editor-in-chief of our English-language sister newspaper, the Hürriyet Daily News. He was one of the journalists who fiercely resisted the coup-plotting soldiers during the raid, arguing with the captain, who was ultimately wounded during the clash with the police. The leader now faces three life sentences for participating in the coup attempt and for killing a civilian near our headquarters.
We conducted our post-raid Facebook Live programme with Yetkin in his office, which still smelled of tear gas. This broadcast was part of our regular show, Soru Hürriyeti (Freedom to Ask).
Earlier in 2016, Hürriyet had become one of the first media outlets in the world to launch regular Facebook Live programmes. Soru Hürriyeti was the most popular of these because it connected the newspaper’s popular columnists with the audience every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon.
By 2017, the number of Soru Hürriyeti episodes had exceeded 60, reaching 23 million screens with over three million views and 200,000 interactions on social media, including some 40,000 comments. At almost no cost, it connected us with readers, leading to a boost in the number of likes of our Facebook page.
Finally, it attracted global brands, which started to sponsor episodes, and was awarded one of the most prestigious national prizes for digital media in Turkey: Digital Age magazine’s “Gamechanger” award, in the news category.
The success of Soru Hürriyeti in cultivating Hürriyet's digital readership and engagement is proof that journalism is about connecting with people, even when democracy is threatened.