Trapped in Turkey's Media Filter
Jul 1, 2013
7 Min read time
I keep staring at the headline: “Turkey’s Non-Crisis.” On June 17, Wajahat Ali and Haroon Moghul published a piece on Boston Review's website that purported to have talked ‘beyond the media filter’ they believed was exaggerating the Turkish protests. They arrived in Turkey, if I have correctly extrapolated the date, on June 14, and stayed the weekend. The opinion they arrived at came disturbingly close to that of Prime Minister Erdoğan—it was all the exaggeration of the Western media. The authors’ context for the article? Interviews with the ‘man on the street’ in between smokes at nargile cafes and a viewing of The Man of Steel.
Let me give an account of what happened to us that weekend.
On Saturday, June 15, we were on the Asian side of Istanbul at a goodbye party for a friend moving to the Kurdish city of Mardin. Around 9 p.m., in the midst of delicious meal, a clamor arose from the streets. The ‘pots and pans’ protest that had been going on every night for weeks had commenced. But there was something else—cries from a huge crowd, "Everywhere is Taksim! Everywhere is Resistance!" Then the tweets started coming in. Police had raided Gezi Park. They were tearing down tents and raining tear gas canisters into the trees. I ran outside to find a group made up of hundreds of people angrily marching toward the wharf and the ferries that would take them to the European side.
About this time, a Kurdish director friend from Kars arrived. His name was Ahmet. He had left Gezi Park an hour before the police attacked and was on the ferry, on his way to us in fact, when he’d heard the news. “We were already taking down the tents ourselves,” he said almost in tears. “No one expected an attack. People had brought their kids, they felt so sure. There were families!”
More tweets started rolling in. A four year old had been gassed and was rushed to a hotel for treatment. Three kids had been separated from their parents and urgent messages on Facebook and Twitter were going out to find the mothers and fathers. A text message arrived on my phone giving the location of a makeshift clinic for anyone injured in the police assault. “PLEASE don’t put this on the Internet,” it said. “Police looking for us.” We turned on the news and found nothing on the main channels about what was happening. The governor of Istanbul tweeted that the reports of children injured were false—meanwhile on Facebook and Twitter pictures of these ‘fake’ children were circulating in an effort to alert their families of where they were.
This is the real ‘media filter’—the one that says nothing’s happening, that it’s a non-crisis. Since the beginning of the protests, Turkey’s media has either not shown what was happening or broadcast small snippets with comments by government officials. The anger against the media was potent. When police first abandoned Taksim Square to the protesters weeks ago, the first target of rage was the news vans. I saw the FOX news van vandalized and spray painted with the words ‘The Media Has Sold Out.’ Only small independent channels dare publicize what’s happening—and they are punished for it. We turned on the indie channel imc-TV only to see one of their correspondents arrested live in the middle of a report. Another reporter, Gökhan Biçici, was first beaten on camera by police, and then dragged away unconscious as people from the surrounding apartments rained eggs on the officers. And CNN Türk showed nothing.
My wife and I live in Çamlıca, a neighborhood in conservative Üsküdar. We left the party early, worried that we would not be able to find a way home in the chaos. At around 10:30 we made it to the Kadıköy bus station only to find the parking lot empty except for a single bus jammed with people. Normally there were dozens. “Have the buses been canceled?” we asked the driver. “Just gossip,” he answered. A passenger in the front smiled grimly and said, “Of course, they’re canceled.” We looked for another way out. The minibuses were all dark and abandoned as well, though they normally ran well past one in the morning. The ferries had been canceled, too.
The buses were on their way to pick up Erdoğan’s followers. Dozens of buses, ferries, and ships had been commandeered by the prime minister to cart people, for free, to an AKP rally the next day. And conveniently enough, this appropriation also prevented people from making their way to Gezi Park as police tore it apart.
We took the last bus to the stop that came closest to our house and walked the rest of the way home—about half an hour. Once home, I got a message from a Canadian journalist friend that he was in the Asian neighborhood of Uzunçayır with about 40,000 people trying to march toward the Bosphorous Bridge. The previous weekend, after a sustained police attack in the Taksim area, a similar crowd had walked 12 miles at 4 a.m. from Kadikoy to Taksim to join the protests. There’s an iconoic photograph of them—thousands upon thousands of ordinary people filling the bridge at sunrise. That could not be allowed to happen again.
Police attacked the crowd at Uzunçayır with tear gas and water cannons—even as thousands more arrived from the neighborhoods of Ataşehir and Kadıköy. A text came from my wife’s cousin: another crowd was trying to join the march from the neighborhood of Fikirtepe and was similarly assaulted. People in the crowd were posting pictures on Twitter. Some managed to make it to the Bosphorous Bridge where police and gendarmes were waiting with TOMA tanks and tear gas.
Another text message arrived from a friend helping to run makeshift clinics in Taksim: they had been found again and attacked with gas and water canons filled with something that burned the skin. Some doctors had been arrested. “Be careful of the water!” it stressed.
Crowds tried to march on Taksim from the European neighborhoods, too. They came from Bakırköy, Okmeydanı, Gazi, and Beşiktaş, but were stopped at every point by gas attacks and TOMA tanks. And again, nothing about it on the regular news. Imc-TV reported that the emergency entrance to the German hospital, which was treating some protesters, was directly attacked by gas and water cannon and police were chasing protesters inside and beating them—this was later confirmed by Human Rights Watch. Around 4 a.m. word got out that there were gangs in the Tophane area carrying clubs and knives marching with police. (See video below.) Dozen of calls for people to go home appeared on Facebook and Twitter. We sent out warning to everyone we knew on the street.
The next day the prime minister had his rally. The news channels that didn’t broadcast the previous night’s violence broadcast hour after hour of Erdoğan’s speech. He suggested that there were dark forces at work. The ‘interest lobbies’of the world had targeted Turkey’s economy. Foreign spies were involved. He had noticed even ‘supposed’ English teachers down at Gezi Park (implying we might be these spies?) All these agents of terror would be investigated ‘one by one.’ “They drink alcohol in our mosques,” he said. “They attack our women. They will pay the necessary price in the courts.”
And indeed the witchhunt has begun with mass arrests of lawyers, doctors, Twitter users, football fan clubs, and students. Smear campaigns, too. Targets include the Koç family, whose multinational corporation owns the Divan Hotel, famous for sheltering victims of the gas; Mehmet Ali Alabora, an actor who supported the protesters from the very first and is now being accused by the government of using his theatrical production as a training ground for the uprising; Erasmus students and other ‘foreign agents’ like French intern Elisa Couvert; and finally even religious leaders, like the imam of the mosque in Dolmabahçe where supposedly alcohol was consumed by protesters. “I cannot tell a lie,” the imam testified this week. “I never saw anyone drink alcohol.”
This was our night outside the media filter, just one night in this month of protests and demonstrations and police attacks. Protests, according to the Ministry of Interior itself, have taken place in 79 of Turkey’s 81 cities. Ankara, the capital, is still filled with tear gas every night.
How in God’s name is this not a crisis?
Photo: March for Medeni Yıldırım and others killed during the course of the protests in Istanbul. / Jeff Gibbs
July 01, 2013
7 Min read time