Posts Tagged ‘censorship’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Television in Turkey has become a hot topic over the last few weeks. First, PM Erdoğan decided to inform the world of his dislike for the immensely popular soap opera Muhteşem Yüzyıl. He based his disdain in the program’s depiction of the Sultan Süleyman I convorting in his harem and drinking wine instead of fighting and conquering. Erdoğan went on to make a barely veiled call to ban the show. Now a member of parliament has taken up the cause and is introducing a bill that would restrict the depiction of historical characters in a “humiliating” manner.
In a separate incident last week, the Turkish television and radio regulatory agency fined a Turkish television channel for airing an episode of the Simpsons which they found offensive. The episode is describe as insulting God and religion by the agency. They claimed to be acting in the interest of “protecting children, not God” from subversive material.
It would be easy to dismiss the public uproar over this incidents as overblown. After all the programs in question are merely a soap opera and a foreign cartoon. However, the the censorship of these shows is part of a larger trend of the Turkish government quashing of freedom of speech. The Turkish press is unhealthily restricted. Notoriously, Turkey currently has more journalists in jail than any other country in the world. Websites such as blogger and youtube have been periodically blocked and Turkey has the dubious honor of lodging the most requests for content bans with Google. In the beginning of 2012, Twitter agreed to censor insulting remarks aimed at Ataturk and any discussion of the Armenian Genocide.
Some media outlets, especially those which subscribe to theories of “creeping Islamization”, have interpreted the recent acts of television censorship as proof that Erdoğan and the AKP are out to create an Islamic state. Out of context, it may appear as if Muhteşem Yüzyıl and the Simpsons were targeted because of their glorification of practices and beliefs that go against some of the teachings of Islam. However, the actions taken by this current government fit into the long history of state censorship in the Republic of Turkey. As Dov Friedman puts it “the AK Party acts increasingly authoritarian in ways unrelated to its Islamist roots.” The first three leaders of the Republic, Atatürk, Inönü and Menderes, all restricted the freedom of the press in the interest of advancing their own agenda. Previous to the 1998 soft coup, Turkey also led the world in number of imprisoned journalists. The new law created in response to Muhteşem Yüzyıl would in effect be an extension of the already existing bans on insulting both “Turkishness” and Ataturk. Law 5816 About Crimes Against Atatürk has been in effect since 1951 and article 301 of the Turkish penal code regarding insults to “Turkishness” was passed under the current government in 2005. Despite being passed under an “Islamist” government, Article 301 has all the features of classic Turkish secular nationalism. There is no mention of Islam, only the “sacred” institutions of the Turkish Republic: the branches of government, the military and the Turkish “nation”
Having been born, raised and educated in a society which accepted and even welcomed a certain level of state media control, the leadership of the AKP has now begun to echo their secular predecessors, almost in spite of themselves. After all, Erdogan himself spent
nearly a year four months in jail for a speech crime. The censoring and/or banning of Muhteşem Yüzyıl and the Simpsons is disturbing not because it is a sign that the AKP government is becoming more “Islamist” but that they are returning to the bad old days of Turkish secular authoritarianism.