Greek-language press inIstanbul struggles to survive

ISTANBUL – The motto of Apogevmatini, one of the two surviving Greek community newspapers in Istanbul -«No one is born or dies without Apogevmatini» – is more suggestive of the social pages than a news medium, but fortunately that is not the case. For years, Apogevmatini’s lack of capable staff, combined with tension in Greek-Turkish relations, restricted its content to Church and social issues, but lately the 80-year-old newspaper has been seeing something of a revival. Its history has mirrored that of the local Greek community. Founded in 1925 by the Vassileiadis brothers, Antonis and Constantine, both pharmacists, the newspaper’s first editor in chief Cavallieros Markouizos thought of its first motto: «New times call for new responsibilities.» Victor Hugo’s words were most opportune. Numbering 126,000 in 1925, the city’s Greeks had just seen their dreams in Asia Minor dashed, along with their hopes of self-determination. They who had once formed a vital part of an imperial capital were now relegated to a «religious minority» in a hostile state. At that time, a number of Greek-language newspapers were in circulation, their offices centered in Pera and Galata, areas that were largely Greek and where most Greek businesses were concentrated. Apogevmatini had a circulation of 20,000, distributed at the ferry docks and at neighborhood grocer shops. Tensions in bilateral relations often made difficult or even stopped the functioning of the Greek-language press, with accusations of violating the law on «insulting Turkey» hanging over them like a Damoclean sword. Cavallieros Markouizos, a Greek citizen, was the first journalist to be deported under the law for «insulting Turkish national interests.» In fact, the history of the Greek press in Turkey has been marked by a number of lawsuits. The current motto was adopted in the 1960s when the Greek press was under a number of restrictions. At one point, the newspaper’s offices were looted, stopping publication for two weeks as rumors raged through the city. When Greek citizens were deported in 1964, circulation fell dramatically from thousands to just hundreds. The current Greek population of just under 2,000 supports just two newspapers, Apogevmatini and Echo. The former’s revival is due to its current publisher, veteran journalist Michalis Vassileiadis, who entered the profession 50 years ago. After an article he wrote criticizing the schismatic church of the «Turkish Orthodox» led by Father Evthym, he was accused of divisive propaganda and dragged through the courts for 10 years. «An indication of how much Turkey has changed is that at that time no lawyer would dare defend me, but today a number have approached me and assured me that they would defend me pro bono if anything should come up,» he said. The four-page Apogevmatini has a 520-print run of which 25 are sent to Greece. This is a major increase from 80 in 2002. Vassileiadis has recruited from Greece people with an interest in the community; he is assisted by Katina Evstratiou and Pola Taktak, an Arab Christian from Antioch. Vassilieiadis laughs that the newsroom is an «orchestra of one,» with himself as writer, copy editor and editor in chief. There is one computer and a photocopying machine. He writes the stories at home in newspaper column format, and the pages are set up as transparent photocopies then sent to a press in Pera. The newspapers are distributed at kiosks in Pera and Tataoula or sent to subscribers. The news stories cover even thorny issues, such as Cyprus, but very carefully so as not to provoke the authorities. The print run is a census of the Greek community, since the newspaper reaches all Greek homes in the city, going free to the poorer households. Vassileiadis said he draws strength from the fact that he is continuing an 80-year tradition of service, but the newspaper is in financial straits, despite the efforts of its sponsors. «It is labor-intensive work. Due to the lack of technology, work that should take just five hours takes 14. Some investment would save us and improve quality,» he said, adding that the digital storage of the newspaper’s archives would act as a recent history of the Greek community. Vassileiadis’s 20-year-old son Minas, who has studied computer technology in Greece, is helping out and learning Turkish. As to whether he will remain in Istanbul and whether he will draw other Greek young people to the city remains to be seen.