The Gezi Park events in Istanbul have triggered one of the largest and most serious civil unrest in decades in Turkey. It all started as a peaceful sit-in protest in order to prevent the demolition of the trees for the construction of a shopping mall in the park, but excess use of police force turned the events into a popular mass protest against the government’s increasingly authoritarian tendency to suppress any critique of its cultural, social or economic policies. The police first intervened on peaceful protestors on the 31st of May when a small group of activists were sleeping in the tents they put around the trees they were guarding. The news of police brutality spread quickly on social media. The mainstream media however, looked away instead of broadcasting disproportionate use of police force.
Gezi protests have revealed how helpless the mainstream media are in Turkey. Their dependency on state benefits and fear of being retaliated by the AKP government, prevented them from doing their job: providing accurate and objective account of events. The public watched the mainstream news channels showing irrelevant documentaries as events erupted in Istanbul and elsewhere. CNNTurk, a sister channel of CNN International, broadcast a three-part documentary about penguins, which became an iconic image for the resistance, in social media, grafittis, various caricatures and comic magazines.
During the most heated moments of Gezi Park protests, only two groups of media were broadcasting from inside the park: Foreign media whose reporters roam the park day and night, and the alternative media which was born in Gezi Park in order to compensate the lack of reliable information flow from the protestors to the public and vice versa.
One of the alternative online media is called Capul (pronounced chapull) TV, named as such after PM Erdogan called the protestors capulcu (pronounced chapulljou) looters, which was immediately embraced by the protestors. The word has become synonymous with resisting in an alternative, youth-driven, peaceful way. .
In fact humor was the sole weapon that fueled the Gezi Park protests. Thousands of young people aged between 19-29, all twitterati and wizard users of Facebook, pulled their weight via social media sites to disseminate information, create awareness about police interventions, directing protestors to safe zones, medical help points, and mobilize people to support Gezi Park resistance, which could otherwise remained as a protest by a couple of dozens of environmentalists.
Gezi protests have taught politicians, civil society organizations and average citizens many lessons in politics, civility, solidarity, democracy. The most important message of Gezi Park protests in my opinion was public demands for more accountability and freedom both in politics and media organizations. Gezi protests have shown how fragile the established media structure is, as new technologies can be appropriated to create alternative modes of communication within hours. As the park quickly created its own media and citizen journalists, the frustration against the mainstream media grew bigger.
NTV news channel, an affiliate of US channel MSNBC which belongs to Doğuş Holding in Turkey, came under increasing public pressure after they aired a documentary on Hitler when events began to unfold in Istanbul and other cities in Turkey. The channel began to report on the events at a later stage, but still tried to manipulate the news. On different occasions it either stopped live feeds, airbrushed slogans on banners in Taksim square, or challenged different views expressed in live broadcasts that criticized lack of mainstream media attention to Gezi Park resistance. Its CEO, Cem Aydın’s public apology on the 11th of June failed to quell the criticism coming from the public. Groups of frustrated audiences rallied to channel’s headquarters in Istanbul twice in two weeks and burnt down a live broadcast vehicle. Cem Aydın was finally reported to go on “leave” on the 13th of June, a euphemism for resignation or suspension.
In 1990s monopoly over broadcasting was lifted in Turkey and private ownership of media emerged as one the most lucrative businesses. Since then political parallelism between media conglomerates and governments has been an issue for transparent, objective and truthtful news reporting in Turkey.
On the 14th of June, the broadcaster effectively breached its agreement with BBC World Service when it declined to broadcast daily current affairs program Dünya Gündemi (World Agenda) prepared by BBC Turkish editors. The show included a video package that focused on the failure of the mainstream media to report objectively and openly on the police intervention and civil unrest. The social media was again quick to spread the news of attempted censorship. The video package was first disseminated on BBC Turkish website. It was also broadcast on Halk TV, a small channel supportive of the opposition party, CHP, Republican People’s Party, within hours of NTV’s failure to transmit it. On the same evening, BBC Global News Division announced that they suspended their agreement with NTV.
The BBC has been running a Turkish service since 1939 but the two periods when the Turkish service was particularly relevant for audiences in Turkey was the run up and the immediate the aftermath of the 1960 and 1980 military interventions according to one of its former directors, Gamon McLellan,
because in those days news were censored in Turkey. The World service transmissions then provided an alternative platform for the public to have access to news and information as public service broadcaster TRT, Turkish Radio and Television, was not free to perform its duty.
In an attempt to “reinvent their mission” in order to survive in a multi-channel environment and to remain relevant for their audiences” Turkish Service formed alliances with private radios and television channels like NTV in Turkey as explained by another former director, Hüseyin Sükan, of the Turkish section. Their partnership with NTV has been going on since 2003 and as Sükan states “It has become a role model for the other language services because it emerged out of their own initiative. This can also be seen as part of BBC Turkish trying to make itself relevant to the Turkish audiences in the new situation when there is greater democratisation and media freedom in many parts of Europe.”
Since 2005, BBC has been cutting down language services for countries which became members of the European Union. The radio transmissions of the Turkish section was shut down in May 2011, in light of greater cuts in public expenses in order to alleviate the impact of economic recession in the UK. The decision to shut down the Turkish section “was difficult to make” was as one senior editor admitted. But was not Turkey after all a “country with a free media, functioning parliament elected democratically by popular vote?”
Perhaps Gezi Park protests just indicate the contrary. A recent report by the Alternative Informatics Association in Turkey made the following observation
if the media covered the protests, then it was only to re-utter the official line stated by the government, turning the private media to the communicator of the provocative language used by the government officials”.
Prime Minister Erdogan’s had pointed out the social media site Twitter was a menace at the beginning of Gezi Protests. On the 9th of June to had told, the protestors , capulcus, to “stop the protests otherwise we will speak with the tongue you comprehend”. A comic magazine, coincidentally called Penguen (Penguin) was quick to give its readers a complementary poster depicting a penguin like a capulcu, its face half covered with a scarf to be protected from pepper gas. The penguin was throwing flowers, instead of gas canisters and water. The satirical poster had also the hashtag #diren /resist on its top corner. The cover of another comic magazine later depicted PM Erdogan looking at the grafittis around Gezipark written in social media language with hashtags, abbreviations, emoticons, and complaining to policemen standing behind him that “these youth don’t speak in the language he understands”.
The spirit of Gezi Park movement depended on “disproportionate use of intellect” coined by the protestors and sympathizers themselves. This stemmed mainly from millennial generation’s (generation Y) youth’s incredible creativity and humor, as opposed to the “disproportionate police force” who attacked protestors with water cannons, pepper gas and plastic bullets.
As of today (18 June), the reports show that the government does not want any more entertainment. The minister of Interior just announced plans for a new legislation that will “regulate cyber crimes” on social media sites such as Twitter. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) revealed the violence against foreign and local journalists who are detained, beaten and obstructed while covering the latest clashes on Monday evening. Newspapers reported the continuing detentions and political commentators warned their readers against the upcoming “national security regime” as the government seems to tighten its grip on every small criticism and protest movement. Chapulling may continue for as long as there is transparency, accountability and freedom in politics and media in Turkey. These needs are crucial than ever.
1 The interviews with editors of the BBC Turkish section were conducted in 2011 as part of a research project that I was working on when I was based as a visiting fellow at the University of Westminster, Communication and Research Institute.