Atatürk's Republic

Following Turkish News, Politics, Arts and Culture

Archive for February 2014

Institutionalized Censorship

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Update: Since posting this, President Gul has signed the internet bill into law.

Censorship is its own institution in Turkey.  More specifically, media censorship operates through multiple institutions and is pervasive to the point that it has been internalized by individual journalists.  The current government’s illiberal attitude toward both traditional and new media is not rooted in their brand of conservative, Islamic-inspired ideology but in Turkey’s tradition of state paternalism.  It is perpetuated through cultural norms and, under this government, through the entanglement of media with businesses, particularly construction and banking, a situation that provides ample incentive for media companies to remain in the government’s good graces.

Even before Gezi brought it international attention, media censorship was an everyday, open reality in Turkey.  Anyone who has spent more than a week in the country will have encountered the bizarre phenomenon of flowers covering cigarettes on TV or a message warning you that a website has been blocked by the government.  Turks put up with and even expected the government to institute censorship.  Hence Erdogan’s recent nonchalant admission that he personally requested that a television station cut references to a statement made by an opposition member of parliament during the Gezi protests.

However, within the past year attitudes have been changing.  The Gezi protests were a turning point in both Turkish citizens’ and the Turkish government’s relationship with censorship.  The extent of government bias in media was laid bare in the infamous penguin incident on Turkish television and the fight against censorship pulled into the mix of eclectic grievances expressed by the Gezi protesters.  Simultaneiously, the use of social media during the course of the protests exposed the internet as the weak point in the government’s control of information.

As Turkish citizens called for a freer press, the government sought to plug the dike of social media.  Their initial tactic was to prosecute citizens for online speech.  However, the failure of this tactic has been laid bare in the wake of the graft scandal which hit the country December 17.  As the government fought to contain the extent of the corruption probe, leaks began springing online.  Videos and voice recordings purporting to show government officials engaged in corruption began spreading via social media.  The new internet bill aims to contain these leaks.  The current protocol for blocking a website or removing a piece of information posted online requires a court order.  In the time it takes to procure such an order, items posted online, such as the leaks related to the corruption probe, have time to go viral.  The new internet censorship law would cut out the requirement for a court order, allowing the government to censor online information at will.  The law also requires that internet service providers store data from their customers for two years so that the government can search the internet history of users for nefarious activity.

If President Gul signs this bill into law (he has until the 25th of this month to do so), it will be a huge blow to free speech in Turkey.  Despite pre-existing government censorship, the internet was the freest platform for communication in Turkey.  However if, or more likely when, the law goes into effect, it will not be the death of the internet in Turkey.  The internet as a constantly expanding and changing system, free of political borders, and its dynamics will always be on the side of those who wish to spread information rather than contain it.  Unless the internet is completely taken out of play, users will find creative ways to work around any government that tries to constrain it.

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The Latest Round of Protests in Turkey

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Yesterday there were protests in at least 3 major cities in Turkey (Istanbul, Ankara and Antalya).  Protesters in Istanbul gathered to oppose the creation of more hydroelectric dams outside a hydroelectric power convention.  They were met with tear gas when they tried to enter the convention center.  The Minister of Forestry and Waterworks, who gave the keynote address at the opening of said convention, stated without any irony that “It’s impossible to understand those who oppose [Hydroelectric Power Plants]…It’s not right to oppose [these plants].”  In Ankara, protesters angry over the extended detention of suspects in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases marched toward the parliament building.  Police intervened in the protester’s progress  with water cannons, some of which were almost certainly filled with a mixture of water and noxious chemicals.  Photographs of these clashes between police and protesters in both Ankara and Istanbul bear an eerie similarity to some of the most iconic images from Gezi last year.

Though these protests are certainly significant expressions of the continued frustrations of a significant slice of the Turkish population, they are far smaller and less coordinated than the Gezi protests of last summer.  That being said, given the volatile atmosphere in Turkey right now, it would not be surprising if another series of coordinated protests broke out in the near future.  A trigger point like Gezi park could spark such protests, but the organic spontaneity of an event like Gezi makes it difficult to forecast.  However there are some Turkish holidays which are often the occasion for protests and could serve as a jumping off point for another round of nation-wide, coordinated demonstrations.  The most notable is May 1, Labor Day, which is widely marked by leftists in Turkey.  Commemoration of the holiday has historically centered on a rally in Taksim square.  Last year the Taksim rally was banned by the local government but unions and left-leaning Turks gathered anyway.  The resulting police-protester clashes were arguably a preview of the Gezi protests that started less than a month later.

The other 50% of Turkey has still not found a political outlet.  The continued police clashes with protesters critical of the government and suppression of the press has only added to the embattled mentality among those who don’t walk the AKP line.  The political, social and media outlets that should serve as a release valve for those with minority and opposition view points are being closed off.  Given this increasingly authoritarian atmosphere, it is certain there will be no shortage of protests in Turkey for the foreseeable future.

Written by ataturksrepublic

February 14, 2014 at 3:48 pm

US Diplomacy and Turkish Democracy

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Written by ataturksrepublic

February 11, 2014 at 4:54 pm