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Twitter a Mirror for the Turkish Press, and the Reflection Isn't Pretty

BY Lisa Goldman | Monday, June 3 2013

Istanbul protestor (credit: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

What if they tried to demolish Central Park (New York), Hyde Park (London) or Tiergarten (Berlin) to build a MALL? That's happening here.
-Placard held by a demonstrator in downtown Istanbul.

When 30 environmentalists pitched tents in Istanbul's Gezi Park on May 27 and sat in to protest government plans to turn the last green space in the densely built up downtown area of the city into a shopping mall, they probably did not expect to set off a nation wide protest movement. But when police moved in four days later to destroy the tents in a pre-dawn raid, using tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons to disperse the protestors, the incident proved to be a tipping point.

Outraged at images of police brutality that included beatings of unarmed civilians, thousands of people converged in downtown Istanbul, in the capital city of Ankara and throughout the country, waving signs and chanting slogans. Their grievances went far beyond the government's plans for Gezi Park. These were popular protests that cut across sectarian, religious and ethnic lines, bringing together Turks from disparate backgrounds to express long-simmering resentment at the policies and heavy handed tactics of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development (AK) party.

One of the most salient and fascinating aspects of these protests is the prominence of social media as a reporting tool. It has, in effect, replaced Turkish media, which ignored the story even as downtown Istanbul looked like a war zone. While photos and video clips posted on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube showed black-clad riot police shooting huge volleys of tear gas and blowing protestors off their feet with pressurized water cannons, an armored vehicle tossing one person like a bundle of straw and children in a subway station overcome by tear gas, CNN Turkey broadcast cooking and animal habitat shows. A screenshot of CNN International's footage of an ongoing demonstration juxtaposed against CNN Turkey's simultaneous broadcast, which showed a chubby cook sitting placidly in front of a table laden with delicacies, went viral.

The demonstrations are now in their fourth day and have captured international media attention. But Taksim Square, where Gezi Park is situated, has turned into a miniature utopia since the police finally withdrew from downtown Istanbul, leaving it to an exuberant crowd of what seem to be primarily young, liberal Turks.

While comparisons with Cairo's Tahrir Square in January-February 2011 are perhaps inevitable, they are most definitely not accurate. This is not a Turkish spring, although it might be the Turkish version of the Occupy movement. But Turkey is not Egypt and Erdogan is no Mubarak. Prime Minister Erdogan has been elected three times by popular vote and Turkey is a democracy with an ostensibly free press.

How, then, to explain the near-farcical failure of the Turkish media to cover the largest spontaneous demonstrations in the country's recent history?

Zeynep Tufekci, a fellow at Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy who has commented extensively on the use of social media in Turkey, explained in an interview with techPresident that the Turkish media engages in self censorship because it is largely owned by big corporations that depend on the government for contracts to carry out public works. And so journalists who criticize the government are fired, or the prime minister sues them for defamation. Sometimes they are arrested under the guise of anti-terrorism laws.

But intimidation is not the only factor at play here — there are plenty of people who support Erdogan and his policies. "One couldn't find many Egyptians who supported Mubarak after January 2011," commented Tufekci. But in Turkey, where Erdogan was elected with over 40 percent of the popular vote, the political discourse is polarized. Twitter reflects the binary positions, she expained, with Erdogan supporters and opponents tweeting at each other and in response to ongoing events.

Erdogan, meanwhile, has called Twitter a curse. "It's all lies," he said. "That thing called social media is the curse of society today."

Erdogan's blustering aside, social media is, confirmed Tufekci, extremely popular in Turkey. "Everyone is on it," she said. "The prime minister may have said it is a curse, but the mayor of Ankara tweets constantly and gets into huge fights on Twitter. The president tweets and the foreign minister tweets too," she added.

Erdogan's opponents include many aggrieved groups. There are politically repressed ethnic Kurds, gays, secular liberals, leftists and even pious Muslims who advocate a separation between religion and state. They are united in their opposition to Erdogan's cronyistic, authoritarian governing style. They resent his trying to legislate what Tufekci refers to as "lifestyle issues," like drinking alcohol in public or even kissing in public.

Last month, dozens of couples staged a "kissing protest" on Istanbul's subway, prompting a counter protest from Islamists. But in marked contrast to the heavy-handed, violent tactics they used against secular protestors in recent days, the police did not try to disperse the anti-kissing Islamists, even when they tried to attack the kissing couples with machetes.

Over the past couple of nights in downtown Istanbul, which is largely populated by the secular, liberal class, denizens have been expressing their support for the protestors by flicking their apartment lights on and off, banging pots and pans and shouting anti-Erdogan slogans from their windows.


Video courtesy of Lauren E. Bohn

Erdogan's broad base of support, meanwhile, is culled from the religious conservative segment of the population and those who point to the success of the prime minister's economic policies, which have brought unprecedented prosperity to Turkey over the last decade.

My colleague Miranda Neubauer points out that some of the social media reports coming out of Turkey proved unverifiable or flat-out wrong. But it seems unlikely that GRAPHIC images such as this one, showing a man hit in the eye with a tear gas canister, are staged. Nor does anyone dispute the story told by images that show thousands of people demonstrating on the streets. Certainly there are always two sides to a story, even though often only one side is accurate. But given the self-censorship of the Turkish media, the only narrative we have is the one promulgated by photogenic, English-speaking, idealistic, secular — and most of all social media-savvy — young Turks.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.