Penguins instead of protests
Self-censorship is the norm in the mainstream media of Turkey, where TV channels have chosen to ignore protests, prompting anger and derision
Published on website of Doha Centre for Media Freedom
Photo: Slawomira Kozieniec
A Turkish banker who says he is a ‘marauder’ too. A gas-mask wearing Whirling Dervish who dances in front of peaceful protesters in an occupied park in Istanbul. An MP from the main opposition party CHP who gives flowers placed in a tear gas canister to the Interior Minister during a parliamentary session. And a deputy prime minister who offers to meet environmental activists who had been gassed by riot police as if they were cockroaches several days before. This is Turkey after more than a week of demonstrations that tarnished the image of Prime Minister Erdogan, his AKP government, and Turkey as a modern Muslim democracy.
It all started on Monday 27 May in Istanbul with a small number of activists who tried to prevent the removal of trees in Gezi Park, next to Taksim Square. On Thursday riot police attacked the peaceful activists at dawn. They set their tents on fire. A young woman in a red dress was attacked with pepper spray from close up. And many others were gassed too. This unwarranted use of violence by police on the civilians and the attack on their right of assembly enraged large sections of the public and turned the small protest into a popular movement. When protesters wanted to march to Gezi Park to reclaim it from the police on Friday afternoon, the riot police reacted with unprecedented amounts of tear gas and the use of several water cannons.
I was in the middle of it when it started. I had to flee in an old shopping arcade where the Turkish Communist Party (TKP) has its headquarters. When I reached Taksim Square lots of riot police attacked once again. Not only directed at protesters but at people watching and reporters, like me too. One of the tear gas canisters ended up at my feet and my clothes were wet from the dirty water of the police cannon. I was engulfed in clouds of gas when staff of a hotel opened a side door to help me escape. Other reporters were less fortunate.
According to a report by Reporters without Borders at least 14 journalists have been subject to police violence in Turkey since the protests started.
Self censorship makes media “a joke”
What added to the anger of the people and the growth of the movement was the self-censorship of the Turkish news channels. While foreign reporters from channels like Al Jazeera, the BBC and CNN International were broadcasting the unrest under news headers like ‘Protests Spread in Turkey’ the mainstream news channels in Turkey ignored them completely. They were broadcasting a speech of prime minister Erdogan to entrepreneurs, cooking shows, a program on the Miss Turkey competition, and a documentary on working women. CNN Türk decided to show an episode of ‘Spy in the Huddle’, a three-part documentary on penguins. Protesters were so angry about this that they burned one of the satellite trucks of NTV on Taksim. They had footage but the editors chose not to broadcast it. “You know that the term “fourth estate” commonly refers to the independence of the press”, says marketing executive Rana Babac. “We don’t have independent media in Turkey. The media here is just a joke”.
Fair, accurate, and impartial reporting has always been a problem in the extreme polarized political climate of Turkey. Reporting on sensitive issues like the Kurds, Islam, Armenians has been biased for decades and heavily influenced by the state ideology of Kemalism.
The problem with the main stream media is that their owners are businessmen who operate in energy, industry, trade, insurance, banking, construction, tourism. And as such they are dependent on the government for state contracts. Professor Asli Tunç, Head of Media School at Istanbul Bilgi University, says that “self-censorship has become the norm in newsrooms. Not because journalists are afraid of the AKP, but of their bosses who will fire them if they are too critical of the government.” She emphasizes the big impact Facebook and Twitter had in the growth of the protests. “There was a lack of reliable information by the media. That’s why all the young people in the streets were using the social media as a news source”. On Twitter the hashtags #direngeziparki and #occupygezi became trending topics.
“A plague on society”
Prime minister Erdogan blamed social media for fuelling the unrest. He criticized Twitter as “a plague on society” and as “a superlative machine for lies and exaggeration”. Turkish satirical magazine Leman carries a cartoon of Erdogan shooting with numerous gas guns at the iconic tweeting birds of Twitter on the cover of its 5 June edition. No laughing matter for all though. Turkish police detained 25 people in the city of Izmir for using Twitter and Facebook for “spreading untrue information” and inciting people to join demonstrations.
The silence of the media on the demonstrations influenced 84.2 percent of the respondents to attend the protests, according to an online survey conducted by Esra Ercan Bilgiç and Zehra Kafkasli, two academics from Istanbul Bilgi University between June 3 and 4.
When the Turkish news channels finally started to report on the spreading of the protests they didn’t focus on the violence of the police, the excessive amounts of teargas they used, and the way they were shooting straight to people and reporters. They preferred to show the events in the way the news was framed by the prime minister who dismissed the protesters as an extremist fringe of “çapulcu” (looter/marauder) and thugs. Many Turks have added “çapulcu” (looter/marauder) to their social media aliases in support of this spontaneous protest movement against the government.
Ergun Özen, the general manager of Turkey’s Garanti Bank, said to hundreds of angry protesters that he was one of the “marauders” too. He spoke in front of the Garanti headquarters in Istanbul to the people who protested the non-reporting of the initial unrest by broadcaster NTV that is part of Doğuş Group, Garanti’s parent company. To protest NTV’s failure to inform the public 1,500 customers have already cancelled their credit cards at Garanti. NTV apologized to its employees for its decision not to report on the popular uprising in its initial stage.
Battle for credibility
Nobody can predict who ultimately will be the winners and losers of this unprecedented social upheaval and what will change. It is clear though that the government has many things to learn from this unrest.
In a blog about the protests Didem Collinsworth and Hugh Pope of the Crisis Group have several recommendations for the Turkish government. This is what they say about the media: “Encourage the fullest coverage possible of events on mainstream Turkish television stations. The muzzling of the news is a short-term tactic that could lose the government the long-term battle for credibility with all segments of society.”
Marc Guillet is a journalist who has been based in Istanbul since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @Turkeyreport
Doha Centre for Media Freedom