Big Brother surveillance of social media under way in Turkey
published on site of: Doha Centre for Media Freedom
Photos: Slawomira Kozieniec
Prime Minister Erdoğan and his government are trying everything to control the flow of information and blaming the media for the unrest in Turkey
While academics, journalists and think tanks are still collecting evidence and doing interviews to determine who the protesters in Turkey are and what the root causes are for the unprecedented social upheaval in recent weeks, prime minister Erdoğan knows the answer already. He blames an international conspiracy supported by the opposition, foreign media, vandals, and financial speculators for the troubles.
He repeats this conviction at every venue. Sunday afternoon he shouted to an estimated 300,000 of his supporters in Istanbul: “If the international media want a picture of Turkey, look here. CNN, Reuters, BBC, hide this picture, too, and go on with your lies”.
The next morning the Turkish conservative Islamic daily Yeni Şafak (“New Dawn”) published its front page for the first time in English. The main headline was ‘Here is Turkey’. More than half the page was a huge photo of the crowd that was ‘nearly 2 million’ according to the paper. Their ‘investigative’ reporters found out that the neo-cons at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) ‘made plans’ in February with the codename ‘Istanbul uprising’ to create ‘a civil war’ promoting Gezi park protests.
Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ reacted to the report and said: “All of this is planned”. Part of it is the “biased international media’s coverage” of the unrest. EU Minister Egemen Bağış added that “the game of those who want to divide Turkey is clear”.
Others, in the same paper, wrote that they were convinced that all this is aimed at preparing a coup against the government of prime minister Erdoğan “like the May 27 coup of 1960”. That was the first of four coup d’états in Turkey, staged by officers commanded by colonel Alparslan Türkeş, against the conservative prime minister Adnan Menderes. After a show trial Menderes and two of his ministers were hanged at the island of Imrali. This trauma is still haunting conservative politicians like Erdoğan and his supporters. Some of them were seen last weekend in Ankara with photos of their three heroes with the text: “Menderes hanged. (Late prime minister and president Turgut) Özal poisoned. We will not let this happen to Erdoğan”.
“Intolerance is increasing”
Instead of trying to calm down the unrest and playing a role as the prime minister of all Turks, Erdoğan acted as the AK Party chairman. He spoke at several mass meetings as if he was on tour during an election campaign. “He added fuel to the fire with his polarising rhetoric of us against them”, says barber Yüksel Zincirli (45) in Kadıköy, a large, populous, and cosmopolitan district in the Asian part of Istanbul. “He is dividing the country with his arrogant and provocative style. He is escalating the tensions”.
Zincirli has not been voting for the governing AK Party, but his wife has and is working for the party. She wears a headscarf. “That wasn’t a problem until a couple of weeks ago”, the barber says. “But now people started to insult her just because she wears a headscarf. Attacks on the lifestyle of devout people are a new phenomenon. Intolerance is increasing”.
EU Minister Egemen Bağış totally disagrees. In a written statement he implied that everybody who criticised his boss was wrong and ungrateful. “Thank God for granting us a leader such as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Tayyip Erdoğan is a gift that God has sent to this nation, to this country, to mankind, and this nation will continue to hold this gift in high esteem.”
Shooting the messenger
Erdoğan, his ministers and state institutions started a counter attack using the oldest trick in the book by blaming the messenger for presenting unwelcome news.
The Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council has fined a number of channels, including Halk TV, for “harming the physical, moral and mental development of children and young people” by broadcasting live coverage of the Gezi Park protests and police brutality. Halk TV started an Istanbul office 6 months ago, has only four staff and is poorly funded, but it became the most popular of all news channels. They showed live pictures that others like CNN Türk didn’t dare to show. They were fined 70,000 euros ($ 94,000) for their live broadcasts.
Social media became another target as part of the revenge by the authorities. They were blamed for fuelling the unrest big time. The prime minister criticised Twitter as “a plague on society” and as “a superlative machine for lies and exaggeration”. Twitter and Facebook were used by young people for mobilising and spreading information. They couldn’t rely on the traditional Turkish media as these are seen by them as the least trustworthy institution, according to a survey conducted in 2011 by Istanbul Kültür University in cooperation with Konda, a prominent Turkish research and consulting firm. Only six out of every 1,000 respondents said they trusted Turkish media the most.
In Turkey the mainstream news media are not, and never were the independent fourth estate, defending democracy by scrutinising government, parliament and the judiciary. Because of the business interests of the publishers in other sectors and their dependence on state contracts the press became intimidated and incorporated into the system. Self-censorship resulted from this relationship and is a big problem at the mainstream media. The partisan papers, like Yeni Şafak and Takvim, go the extra mile in subservience and act like the three little monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Takvim went overboard when it published a fake cover story in its June 18 edition under the headline “Dirty Confession,” including a subtitle reporting that senior CNN anchorwoman Christiane Amanpour confessed “We did everything for money.” In the fake “interview” with her she said the CNN editorial board pushed her to cover recent events with the intention of “destabilizing” Turkey for international business interests.
“We want all colours of Turkey to be heard”
“Many older people who only read the mainstream papers or watch the mainstream TV channels don’t know what’s really going on”, says Asli (38) owner and chef of restaurant ‘34 Istanbul & Holland’. “I watch Halk TV and a lot of news on internet to keep me up to date”. On the door of her refrigerator is a poster with a penguin who throws flowers at the police. Turkish ‘flower power’. That’s what she likes. “Erdoğan represents only one colour, the colour of conservative Islam. We want all colours of Turkey to be heard.”
Twitter became for the activists the main source of news and a tool to organise demonstrations. The popularity of the hashtag #direngezipark (occupy Gezi park) exploded. A recent report of the New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation showed that this hashtag “had been used in more than 1.8 million tweets just between June 2 to June 3. In comparison, during the entire Egyptian revolution the most popular hashtag #jan25 was used in less than one million tweets”, writes columnist Verda Özer in the Turkish paper Hürriyet Daily News.
Targeting social media
The biggest shock for the Turkish government was that it has lost the power to dominate and control the flow of information to young, mobile individuals who act with their smart phones as real independent reporters. The power to influence others is shifting to the individual and that is ‘dangerous’ in the eyes of prime minister Erdoğan, who wants to control everything. The authorities have been working on a counter strategy in the last three weeks to neutralize the influence of social media. Demonizing the micro-blogging site Twitter is part of that strategy. Yalçın Akdoğan, an AKP deputy and a senior adviser to Erdoğan said: “A tweet containing lies and slander is much more dangerous that a vehicle loaded with a bomb.”
Twitter is now targeted in Turkey in several ways. First dozens of users were arrested because they allegedly provoked the public with their tweets during the protests. The Turkish Ministry of Communications tries to find ways to punish Twitter with big fines. Twitter earns money from advertisements but doesn’t pay tax in Turkey, so they operate illegal, is the argument by the Ministry.
The Justice Ministry is preparing a draft law to punish those who send messages via internet that lead to criminal acts. Muammer Güler, former governor of the province of Istanbul and now Minister of Interior said that a regulation for social media is needed. “We are studying those who provoke the public via manipulations with false news, leading them to actions that threaten the security of life and property by using social media.”
According to reports in the Turkish press some 5 million tweets are already investigated by a department working against cyber crimes. “Remarkable”, says human rights researcher Peter van der Velden in The Hague, “because there is no law yet. One of the basic principles of law is “no law, no crime”, known as the “principle of legality”. This means that you cannot use a law retrospectively. So all tweets up until the moment that this announced draft law enters into the criminal code are not punishable.”
Marc Guillet is a journalist who has been based in Istanbul since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @Turkeyreport