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The Grand Finale

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Yesterday, President Erdogan treated us to a live broadcast of the grand finale of his win-back-a-parliamentary-majority-and-crush-his-opponents spectacular. Over the course of a 10-hour standoff, during which the television networks in question kept broadcasting from company headquarters until the last moment, Turkey witnessed the forcible take over of the 15th and 16th most popular news networks in the country, KanalTurk and Bugun. The shutdown of these networks came after the government declared last month that they were seizing the holdings of the Koza-Ipek business group, which has ties to the Gulen Movement, for improper financial dealings. In other words, the group was under suspicion of channeling funds to Gulen, who has been declared one of the most wanted terrorists in Turkey (though the government has no evidence to back up either claim- that Koza-Ipek was sending money to Gulen or that Gulen tried to overthrow the government). Bugun and KanalTurk are (were) part of the Koza-Ipek group.

Yesterday’s spectacle outside Koza-Ipek was jaw dropping and surreal even by Turkish standards- a celebrity chef showed up to cook and distribute food only to get into a scuffle with police and as soon as the Bugun feed was cut a part of a series on World War II was put on air- yet, predictably, none of the other major news networks covered the events.

There can be no doubt that yesterday’s seizure of one of the few critical media stations still remaining in Turkey (what ever you may think of their Gulenist origins) was the latest in a series of brazen attempts to swing the upcoming election toward an AKP majority. Since June 7th, among other un-democratic measures, the government has moved and consolidated ballot boxes in the predominantly Kurdish South-East, arrested opposition politicians and journalists and daily spread blatant lies about the nefarious deeds of Gulen, the connection of HDP politicians to terrorism and the supposed PKK-ISIS partnership.

However, if, despite what is clearly been a concerted effort, democracy somehow wins in Turkey and the election turns out as predicted (that is to say, not very different from the June results), then Erdogan may have succeeded at only further alienating all but the most hard-core of his supporters and driving together previously hostile components of the opposition. For example, the leader of the Kurdish HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, showed up at Koza-Ipek yesterday to show his support for the defiant organization. This is quite unusual as the Gulen movement is not known to be particularly friendly toward Kurds. Similarly, the CHP, the party most closely connected to Kemalism, which historically denied the existence of the Kurds as a unique ethnicity or culture, has shown remarkable solidarity with the Kurdish HDP in the face of the AKP’s campaign to associate the Kurdish party and its leaders with the PKK. Even the far right, nationalist MHP has denounced the AKP’s equivocation of the HDP and the PKK.

None of this may matter in the end if the AKP, and Erdogan by extension, regain their majority, and if there is one rule for Turkey analysts it is never to rule out Erdogan. Nonetheless it does demonstrate that while Erdogan has become an increasingly divisive figure in his own party, he has become a uniting figure for opposition members of all ideologies. It is also important to note, as Steven Cook pointed out, that all the anti-democratic maneuvers described above a sign of weakness, and desperation, not strength. And the longer this farce goes on, the smaller and smaller the chances are of Erdogan getting his executive presidency- an issue which we barely hear about anymore.

What Turkey needs right now is a coalition government, one that is willing to work with all parties, even those in the official opposition, to rebuild Turkey’s institutional independence, rule of law, and the trust of citizens in government. And polls show that, if democracy works, this is what Turkey should get. However, it won’t be clear until after the election if Erdogan’s anti-democratic campaign has worked, and even then, given Erdogan’s clear hostility to the idea, it is far from certain that a coalition can be formed. For Turks of all stripes, the next few days are going to be ones of anxiety and anticipation.

Written by ataturksrepublic

October 29, 2015 at 4:12 am

Last Week in Turkey

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The start of a new year brings with it the alternately loved and loathed tradition of year-in-review listicles.  During the course of last week, the first full week of 2015 (Monday, January 5 to Sunday, January 11), the major events in Turkey provided a ready-made listicle of the political highlights of the previous year.

The December 13, 2013 Corruption Probe
Though this case broke in 2013, it continued to dominate headlines throughout 2014.  Over the course of last year, thousands of judicial and law enforcement officials were demoted, transferred and/or arrest as a result of their involvement in the case or connections with the Gulen Movement, which the government believes is the motivating force behind the corruption charges.

On Monday, a parliamentary committee voted not to pursue charges against four former government ministers indited in connection with the corruption probe.
Also on Monday, 20 police officers in districts across the country were arrested and accused of illegal wire tapping in connection with the case (much of the evidence in the case came from recorded phone conversations, transcripts of which may be soon slated for destruction).  Meanwhile, the central implicated figure in the case bought a new private jet for himself.

On Thursday, six private Turkish TV broadcasting companies were fined for reading the testimony of the ministers accused in the corruption scandal on air.

Suppression of Civil Society, Free Speech and Freedom of the Press
This has been an ongoing problem in Turkey, arguably going back to the founding of the Republic and beyond.  However, after the Gezi protests of summer 2013, the government has been quick to subject protests directed against them with liberal doses of tear gas and high pressure water.  Ordinary citizens, even children, have been brought to court for anti-government statements, particularly when these are posted on social media.  The targeting of citizen free speech has gone hand in hand with a crack down on freedom of the press, with Turkey ranking as the top jailer of journalists for the first half of 2014.

On Monday, a protest organized by civil society groups against the jailing censoring of journalists was tear gassed and water cannoned, despite the freezing temperatures, outside the Constitutional Court.  It is likely that these groups are connected to the Gulen Movement, who’s publications and journalists were particularly targeted throughout 2014.

On Tuesday, Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink, the only foreign journalist based in Diyarbakir, the defacto capital of Turkish Kurdistan, was briefly detained and had her housed searched by the Turkish anti-terrorism police squad.  She was accused of spreading negative information about the Turkish state as well as PKK propaganda.

On Wednesday, another Dutch journalist was detained and released pending his appearance at court in relation to an act of journalism committed in 2013.

On Thursday, it was announced that Turkey had bought 1.9 million new tear gas canisters from a manufacturer in South Korea.

Environmental Degradation
The destruction of trees and the degradation of natural areas in the service of economic and industrial progress was a major source of controversy throughout 2014.  The start of construction on the new Istanbul airport, the ongoing work on the third Bosphorus bridge and the completion of the new presidential palace as well as smaller incidents like the cutting of olive groves for the building of a new power plant meant that hardly a week went by in 2014 without a story featuring a photo of muddy, clear-cut land.  Many infrastructure projects, including the ones mentioned above, went ahead despite court orders and civilian protests.

A large number of cedar trees in an old growth forest were cut over the previous weekend to make way for a marble quarry, triggering a protest by hundreds of locals on Monday.

On Friday, there was a rare victory for environmental activists when a court order suspended the sale of coastal land that was slated for development.  The land in question is a sea turtle nesting ground and beloved by locals and tourists alike.

Gender Equality
2014 was the year of President Erdogan and the AKP making decidedly illiberal and downright silly statements about relations between the sexes.

The proposals for maternal leave and parental accommodation in employment announced Thursday were greeted with skepticism as they came on the heels of many statements by the government encouraging a more maternal, traditional role for women.

The Kurdish Settlement
The ongoing dialogue between the government and the long-oppressed Kurdish minority population was on shaky ground for most of 2014.  A number of Kurdish civilians were killed by police and police and military personal were killed in attacks which likely linked to the PKK.  Little to no progress was made on allowing for greater cultural rights such as Kurdish-language primary schools.  Most notorious was the actions of the Turkish government after the Kurdish Syrian town of Kobane was attacked by the Islamic State.  While Turkey did allow civilians to flee across the border in fits and starts, the Turkish government’s refused to let Turkish Kurds cross the border to join the fighting and made it clear that it had no interest in providing official military aid.  The Turkish government brought into question its commitment to the peace progress when President Erdogan equated the PKK (whose jailed leader was critical to starting and sustaining the peace process) with the Islamic State.  The situation in Kobane, and the widespread (mis)perception that Turkish government was secretly supporting the Islamic State, lead to riots in Kurdish majority areas.  Dozens of civilians and two police officers died and scores were arrested.  There were also deaths as the result of intra-Kurdish violence.

On Monday, a pro-government paper announced that there would soon be a new set of laws introduced that “will put an end to the country’s Kurdish issue.”  According to the article, the new laws will include measures to disarm, repatriate and reintegrate into society members of the PKK, though exactly how this will be carried out is unclear.  It was not announced when this legal package would be introduced in parliament.  Previous legal packages meant to reconcile previous legal discrimination of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens have been met with mixed reviews at best.

On Wednesday, a 14 year old boy was shot and killed by police during intra-Kurdish clashes in the town of Cizre.

International Diplomacy or Lack There Of
Turkey’s international relations continued on their downward spiral in 2014.  Relations were strained even with long-time allies such as the US and efforts to restart Turkey’s long idle EU ascension progress basically went no where.  True to form, Erdogan and members of the AKP made multiple un-diplomatic statements that only added to Turkey’s perception problem abroad.

After the attack last week in Paris on the staff of the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine, Prime Minister Davutoglu released an unequivocal condemnation while other members of the government, including President Erdogan, choose to try to shift some of the blame for the attacks to what they perceive as Europe’s widespread Islamophobia.  Other members of the AKP speculated that the attacks were staged and/or part of an elaborate conspiracy.

Terrorism
This is one of the few categories in which last week unfortunately stands out from 2014.  The major terrorism related incident of 2014 was the kidnapping but eventual safe release of the staff of the Turkish consulate in Mosul.  However, there had not been a major terrorist attack targeting civilians in Turkey since the attempted suicide bombing of the US Embassy in Ankara and Reyhanli car bombings in February and May respectively of 2013.

On Tuesday, a woman walked into a police station in the old city area of Istanbul and blew herself up, killing one police officer and seriously wounding another.  The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front, the militant leftist organization that perpetrated the 2013 US Embassy bombing, initially took credit for the attack.  However, it was latter forced to retract its statements when it was revealed that the bomber was not a member of the group as originally thought, but likely a Chechen in Istanbul on a tourist visa.

On Saturday, two bombs were found in two different Istanbul shopping malls but safely removed and destroyed before they could explode.  It is unclear who planted the bombs and why.

What’s Missing
It is important to note that there were a few major issues and events of 2014 that was noticeably absent from the major stories last week, including the ongoing refugee crisis and the Soma disaster.

What’s in Store for 2015 
It’s likely we’ll be seeing a lot more of the same. Most if not all of the issues above, including suppression of the press, lack of environmental stewardship and failing foreign relations are chronic problems that will take years to fix.  Despite their absence from the headlines last week, both refugees and industrial safety problems are guaranteed to make an appearance multiple times in 2015 as well.  There is a general election coming up in June of this year, and due to the main opposition’s lack of organization, popularity and general political acumen, in all likelihood we can look forward to continued political domination by the AKP.

The serious new developments from last week were the bombings in Istanbul.  It is unclear what motivated the suicide bomber.  There are speculations she may have had connections to the Islamic State, though IS has not taken responsibility for the attack.  This may very well be an isolated incident but the second attempted bombing coming close on its heels makes it more worrying.  Unfortunately, we again don’t know what motivated the bomber or bombers in the second incident and no one has taken responsibility.   These two incidents mark a fairly ominous start to 2015 for Turkey and we can only hope that they are indeed an anomaly.  Istanbul has experienced and recovered from terrorist attacks in the recent past.

The possible involvement of IS, until ruled out, is deeply troubling.  The lack of credit for the bombings could be a deliberate strategy on the part of IS.  If they are indeed behind the attacks, the Islamic State might be trying to avoid drawing the direct wrath of Turkey.  IS’s territory shares long borders with Turkey and is reliant on foreign recruits and supplies being funneled through Turkey.  Turkey has faced harsh criticism for not doing more to stop the flow of foreign fighters, including those loyal to the Islamic State, across its southern border.  If IS has started targeting Istanbul, it may hard to thwart them.  Turkey would have to finally plug the leaks in its admittedly very long and hard to defend southern border.  Perhaps more dangerous are the IS sympathizers, both Turks and foreigners, already in Turkey.  As the attacks in Paris demonstrate, even terrorists already under suspicion by the state can manage to pull off deadly attacks.

Turkey’s Options in Iraq

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The ongoing crisis in Iraq has led to an explosion of op-eds and policy pieces discussing the future, or lack thereof, of the Iraqi nation-state and the implications this has for foreign policy-makers.  Steven Cook echoes many thinkers when he warned that Iraq is on the verge of breaking apart.  As he and Nick Danforth rightly point out, the international borders created by Western powers a hundred years ago were largely arbitrary, more so than elsewhere.  Cook sees the eventual break-up of Iraq as practically inevitable given the disunity of it’s various factions and compares it to the former Yugoslavia.  However, as Danforth points out the involvement of ISIS in particular creates the possibility of alliances and shifting borders outside of the confines of ethnic and religious allegiances.

As many have also pointed out, the most likely “winners” in this situation, and the most likely to successfully create their own breakaway state, are the northern Iraqi Kurds.  The Kurdish para-military forces, known as peshmerga, took advantage of the chaos and successfully gained control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.  Kurdish leaders have declared that this is not a temporary security measure and they plan to hold on to the city even if the threat of ISIS subsides.  The Kurd’s ascending power, coupled with their record of stable governance of northern Iraq, has resulted in a number of calls for greater international support of and recognition for the Kurd’s claims of sovereignty.  Dov Friedman and Cale Salih argued that if the US wants the Kurds to help defeat ISIS, instead of simply defending their own territory, the US government needs to pull back on their support of Maliki and all but recognize the Kurds as sovereign in their territory (though, crucially not independent).  Developments today indicate that the Obama administration is taking at least the first half of Friedman’s and Salih’s advice and may be orchestrating the ouster of Maliki.  Similarly, writing in regards to Turkey’s policy options, Michael Koplow suggested that it is “Time for Turkey to Support an Independent Iraqi Kurdistan.”

The foreign policy options for the US regarding Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan are much more numerous and complicated and, frankly, lay outside my area of expertise.  Turkey, bordering both ISIS and Kurdish controlled regions of Iraq and having much less influence over Baghdad has a limited number of routes it can chose.  Koplow’s proposal is bold and well-intentioned but I don’t think it’s an idea whose time has yet come.  It is only a week into the crisis and it is much too early to declare the death of the Iraqi nation-state.  As Danforth points out, ISIS brought a number of parties who were formerly at odds together in the fight against the invasion.  Even if Kurdistan does manage to gain it’s independence as a result of this incident (and I do believe Iraqi Kurdistan has a very good chance of becoming its own state sooner or later) Baghdad will likely remain in control of most of the rest of Iraq in the short to medium term. As Danforth also states, despite the media’s new found interest in discussing the potential for a plethora of new states in the Middle East, the idea that there are “natural” and homogeneous enthno-religious nation-states waiting to be born is a myth.  The idea of the nation-state is surprisingly tenacious, even in states where it was imposed from the outside.  Breakups in the model of Yugoslavia are rare.  If Iraq were to split, I foresee an outcome more akin to either the break-away provinces in Georgia or the bi-lateral split in Sudan.   Ankara should not risk cutting its already stressed relations with the Iraqi government over a pre-emptive declaration of Kurdish independence.  Turkey should of course continue to build ties with the KRG, but its current wait-and-see approach is the best way to keep it’s long term options and political ties open.

This wait and see policy should not be applied to the ongoing ISIS hostage crisis however.  As I wrote earlier, the AKP and Erdogan are at a loss as to what to do and therefore have resorted to their tried and true blame and divert tactics.  Erdogan has even managed to impliment an official media blackout regarding the hostages, even as credible reports claim that 15 more Turks have been captured by ISIS.  The longer the hostages are held, the more likely there won’t be a happy ending to this story.  ISIS is no friend of the Turkish government, despite what pro-government talking heads on Turkish TV may think.  ISIS is ruthless, brutal and stubborn.  Treating them with kid gloves may keep the Turkish hostages alive for now, but does nothing to guarantee their ultimate safe return.  Turkey needs to draw on its ties with Kurdistan and work with the peshmerga, how ever distasteful that may be, to locate and recover their citizens.  This is both the best of the bad political options for the AKP and the best chance for the captured Turks to return home.

Twitter and the March 30th Elections

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My prediction that Turkey would not ban twitter was disproven in remarkably short order.  Starting midnight Friday Turkish time twitter was blocked.  The ban failed spectacularly with millions of Turks using DNS and VPN networks, tricks that have become common knowledge in Turkey from the days of the YouTube ban, to circumvent the block.  Tweets in Turkey were up 138% from average in the the hours immediately after the ban.  Within a matter of hours, news of the ban had gone viral worldwide and everyone from the US State Department to Russell Crowe put out statements condemning it.

Despite  the world-wide condemnation (which Erdogan famously stated he did not care about), the ambiguous legality of the court orders instituting it and the epic failure of the ban to prevent anyone from using twitter (besides party die-hards), the blockade has still not be lifted.  Sunday, Erdogan once again denounced Facebook and YouTube, leading to fears that these social networks will be blocked shortly.  Of greater concern is the fact that DNS networks were blocked over the weekend and rumor has it, thanks to the new internet law, the government will soon have the ability and legal authority to block specific IP addresses, making subverting social network bans much more difficult for the average person.  However as Zeynep Tufekci observed, only a full block of the internet would prevent Turks from finding ways to get online.

Some have dismissed the twitter ban as technological and political naivete, or the last desperate efforts of a tyrant on his way out.  Though the ban in many ways has been a complete failure and is no doubt an indicator that Erdogan fears for his political future, there is shrewd political calculation behind this move.  Erdogan is betting that the ban will do more damage to his opponents than to himself in the final days leading up to the March 30 elections.  Evidence of Erdogan’s motives appeared shortly after the ban was put in place  when the hashtag “we’ll go to the streets for Twitter” began trending in Turkish.  Government critics and opposition figures countered this sentiment, calling for calm, and it was soon discovered that the hashtag was most likely spread by government trolls.  Erdogan was likely expecting the banning of twitter, a platform that figured prominently during the Gezi protests last summer, to trigger more protests.  In the year since Gezi, Erdogan and his political allies have been using the threat of “Gezi People” trying to destroy Turkish democracy and overthrow a duly elected government as a way to strengthen their hold over their conservative base.  Protests in response to the ban would have only served to strengthen his case.

It is also widely believed that the twitter ban may be a preemptive strike against the release of even more serious evidence of Erdogan’s involvement in corrupt activities, or possibly even a sex tape, in the last week before the March 30 elections.  Although the block on twitter would do little to stop the dissemination of such tapes, bans on YouTube and Facebook in addition to the blockage of IP address might indeed slow their spread among all but the most technologically savvy Turks.  However, it is important to note that such new evidence, if it does exist, may not do much to change the mind of current AKP supporters. At least some supporters do not believe the party’s denial of corruption charges.  Multiple reports have found that Erdogan supporters are willing to ignore or accept corruption because of the economic and infrastructure improvements the AKP has brought about over the last 10+ years.

Like the corruption allegations, the twitter ban indeed appears to have done little to diminish Erdogan’s popularity among his base supporters.  He was cheered after announcing his intention to shut down twitter at a rally in Bursa Thursday and was again met with approving cheers when he spoke of doing the same to Facebook and YouTube at an even bigger rally in Istanbul Sunday.  Unlike Mubarak, whose attempt to ban twitter was indeed an indication that his rule was coming to an end, Erdogan is a legitimately elected head of state.  Despite the fact that he is increasingly despised by 50% or more of the population, the fractured and ineffective nature of the opposition parties means that the AKP still enjoys a plurality of support among Turks, and that’s all they may need in order for the party to continue to control the key cities of Istanbul and Ankara.

Given the symbolic importance that both the government and the opposition have ascribed to this election, analysts and pollsters have already spent months trying to predict its outcome, especially in the mayoral races in Istanbul and Ankara.  Turkish polls are notoriously biased (one of the leaked tapes revealed Erdogan personally fixing a poll before it was released) and methodologically unsound.  However, given the recent gerrymandering of local election districts, the resilience of the AKP’s base and the weakness of the opposition, the AKP may very well legitimately maintain power in Turkey’s two largest cities.  Despite the fact that the odds are arguably in their favor, there have been concerns about the possibility of election fraud, which has not been the case in decades.  The EU has offered to send observers and the government has at least officially welcomed the offer.

Even if these elections are monitored, I foresee accusations of fraud no matter which side ultimately prevails.  Given the importance of these elections for the AKP’s self-declared mandate, observers have rightly worried that they will have no qualms about stuffing ballot boxes.  However, a potentially more dangerous scenario would be for the opposition parties to take Ankara and Istanbul legitimately, only to have the government question the legality of the elections.  This could lead to the canceling of the elections and Erdogan securing an even tighter grip on power, having more “proof” that there is a 5th column trying to revert to the bad old days of secular dictatorship.  This would be a worst-case scenario, but most credible predictions about Turkey’s immediate future look bleak.  Unless a strong opposition party emerges, and the AKP collapses, Erdogan will continue to push the country into two ever more entrenched camps.  The more polarized the country is, the more difficult it will be for the two sides to reconcile within a democratic system.

The AKP v. Social Media

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Turkey has a long history of official government censorship.  Despite this fact, the issue has exploded on both the national and international stage over the past several years.  The factors driving the shift from passive acceptance to active resistance to media censorship among Turks are two-fold: there has been a radical shift in both people’s expectations of the media and the seriousness of Turkey’s censorship laws

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a talk at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society by Prof. Zeynep Tufekci, sociologist of technology, and Engin Onder, one of the founders of the Turkish alternative media collective 140 Journos.  Engin traced the inspiration for 140 Journos to a pivotal moment in recent Turkish media history.  In 2011, a group of Kurdish smugglers crossing the Turkey-Iraq border were bombed by the Turkish military.  The Turkish government subsequently claimed that they had believed the group to be PKK fighters.  Thirty-four people, mostly teenage boys, were killed.  After the story broke, the Turkish media sat on it, afraid of repercussions if they were to break the story.  One journalist, Serdar Akinan, decided to report on the incident independently.  In an iconoclastic act of “citizen journalism,” Serdar traveled to the home village of the victims just in time to witness a mass funeral.  He uploaded a picture of the funeral procession to his instagram account, which spread rapidly on social media, effectively breaking a story that the mainstream media had refused to touch.

Serdar’s reporting on the Roboski massacre demonstrated the power of social media to cut through the mainstream media’s stifling self-censorship.  The coverage of the Gezi protests a year and half later offered further proof of the growing disconnect between the information being reported by the mainstream media and the facts on the ground.  The Gezi protesters and those that sympathized with their cause relied on social media sources, especially twitter, for accurate, up-to-date information.  Sources like 140 Journos were especially important as they vet their reports for accuracy before posting them.

The ability to access unfettered news via the internet questions the whole logic of government censorship.  What’s the point of censoring one form of media when the same information can be spread on another?  Instead of using the rise of social media as an excuse to loosen its grip on the mainstream media, the Turkish government has pursued the opposite approach.  AKP government officials have argued that the media controls imposed by the AKP government are comparable to those imposed by previous Turkish governments.  However, Prof. Tufekci argued that the recently passed internet law gives the government unprecedented powers to pursue critics.  It will allow the government not only to access information about the web usage of all Turkish citizens but also to present this information in court as evidence.  The AKP government had previously blocked websites, most infamously YouTube.  However, as Prof. Tufekci pointed out, these bans were easily and frequently circumvented via tools like proxy servers; the prime minister himself acknowledged as much.  Very few Turks have ever been prosecuted for their online activities.  However, this new law is designed to close these loop holes by requiring ISPs to keep a 2 year log of all their customers’ activities.  Prof. Tufekci believes that likely use the information they gather from ISPs to bring intimidating suits against government critics for their online speech.

When asked about the threat that this new law poses to the work of 140 Journos, Engin seemed fairly unconcerned.  Indeed, the Turkish government is playing a loosing game in its attempts to censor the internet. Half of Turks are under the age of 30.  At least 50% of the population has access to the internet at home and 41 % of internet users have a smart phone.  Twitter claims at least 10 million users in Turkey, making Turkish the 8th most used language on the micro-blogging site.  Erdogan’s frequent denunciations of social media sites, Twitter in particular, indicates that he considers these sites, and in following the free flow of information, a real threat to his hold on power. Two weeks ago, he threatened to ban Facebook and YouTube, a threat that he subsequently back down on.  Just today, Erdogan announced that he planed to “dig out” twitter from Turkey.  Despite the immediate panic this statement is causing, I would be very surprised if it was carried through.  At the Bergmen Center talk Prof. Tufekci made it very clear that extreme measures such as a total ban on the internet were very unlikely to happen in Turkey due to the internet’s deep penetration in society.  If the government were to attempt to ban the internet, it would be a clear indication that they have completely lost control.  Due to its popularity in Turkey, I would argue that the same sentiment applies to banning Twitter, if to a some what lesser degree.  Twitter has become invaluable to government opponents in terms of organizing, sharing news, etc.  Erdogan is playing a dangerous game, and he almost certainly knows it.  The “Gezi people” will not accept such a ban without a fight.  If Erdogan does indeed have a court order to shut down Twitter in Turkey, the consequences may cost him dearly.

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.

Ergenekon is not Gezi

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In the few days since the initial sentences were pronounced in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases, the media has been inundated with articles about this years-long judicial saga (or at least as inundated as the media ever gets regarding news about Turkey).  Most experts acknowledge that Turkey’s Deep State was a very real and powerful entity that has to some degree been tamed by these trials.  However, there is also widespread consensus that the net cast by the investigation also caught up many government critics that most likely had nothing to do with the deep state or coup plots.  Given the timing of the case and its targeting of journalists, academics and politicians critical of the government, it is all too easy to try to draw a straight line between Ergenekon and the ongoing Gezi movement.  Some media coverage of the case has done just that, juxtaposing a picture of an Ergenekon defendant with a story about Gezi-related media censorshipOthers are more subtle, emphasizing demographic and political commonalities between the protesters in Gezi and those outside the Ergenekon courthouse.

However, as with most things in Turkey, the connection between Gezi and Ergenekon is far from simple.  Though arguably they both can be cited as examples of the AKP’s suppression of its critics, Ergenekon and Gezi represent two very different moments in Turkish political history.  Ergenekon and those who passionately defend or disparage the handing of the case represent the old Turkey and it’s strict Kemalist/Pro-military vs. Islamist/anti-military political divide.  In contrast, Gezi is the first truly liberal and diverse widespread political movement in Turkish history.  The “polarization” that is so stark in the case of Ergenekon is much fuzzier in Gezi.  Those who oppose the Ergenekon trials are generally affiliated with the old Kemalist secular elite who were very much already politically aware and active.  In contrast, Gezi is overwhelmingly young, the majority of which claim no political affiliation and were not politically active before the protests.

While it is fair to assume that anti-Ergenekon secularists would support the Gezi protests, the same does not hold true for the reverse scenario.  Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the Gezi leadership has refused to get involved in the Ergenekon protests.  While at least some of those facing prison terms in connection with Ergenekon or Sledgehammer are the victims of injustice, they don’t represent the same kind of injustice the Gezi movement was built around.  Gezi resonated amongst those who felt they had no voice in politics.  In contrast, many of the non-military defendants in Ergenekon became targets because of their prominence as outspoken nationalists and government opponents.  Despite the involvement of MHP (nationalist) and CHP (Kemalist) in Gezi, the movement itself eschewed these labels.  Polls have shown that participants in Gezi are not keen on voting for any of the existing parties.  CHP parliamentarians have noticeably become more liberal in their rhetoric since Gezi in an effort to attract it’s stubbornly politically independent demographic.

In short, Gezi supporters seem to be happy to watch Turkey’s political battle royale from the sidelines with no particular concern for the outcome.  After all, the two sides represent illiberal, if opposite, political positions.  If we learned from Gezi, it is that the next generation wants to free itself from state paternalism and authoritarianism, whether it be in the name of Islam, capitalism or secularism.

Written by ataturksrepublic

August 8, 2013 at 3:24 pm