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Digital Platforms, Analog Elections: How Civic Groups Are Trying to Bring Back Democracy in Turkey

When Gezi protesters occupied the park last summer and took their frustration with the government to the streets, Prime Minister Erdoğan told them to “be patient and face off at the ballot box.” It was exactly Erdoğan’s reductive framing of democracy, which limits political legitimacy to elections and takes an uncompromising, polarizing stance against opposition, that Gezi protesters stood against. Nonetheless, unlike similar political movements in the United States and Western Europe that have abandoned electoral politics, Gezi protesters took Erdoğan’s call seriously and owned up to their votes on 30 March. Their movement could not grow into a political party that would conjoin the grievances of the multitude in the park, and the opposition parties could not respond to the pluralistic and active citizenship that the protesters demanded. But the distrust in institutional politics did result in a number of civic initiatives that mobilized thousands of volunteers to act in a watchdog capacity during and after the elections last Sunday. Read more.

We are Turkey’s Generation Y – not a robot lobby

Last week the Guardian’s “modern little bastards” took over G2 to reflect the diverse voices of the generation Y. The ever-amazing Nabeelah Shabbir gave me the opportunity to voice the concerns of Turkey’s Generation Y — a piece that touches on the young protesters who took selfies in the back of a police van and the amazing work that 140journos does. That also marks my debut in the pages of the Guardian — which is thrilling! P.S: In a fairly strange turn of events, on the day my piece was published Turkey has blocked access to Twitter. More on that coming soon.

In Turkeyplatforms like Facebook and YouTube are being used for “all kinds of immorality, all kinds of espionage” if you believe the prime minister’s recent words. Last summer, Recep Tayyip Erdogan went so far as to brand social media “the worst menace to society” in this secular Islamic republic of 74 million, where between 50% and 60% are under the age of 30. He laments a “robot lobby” – nefarious forces, which aim to take down his government with tweets on social media (his ownTwitter profile, I suspect, is run by a communications team, and has 4.16 million followers).

Even his wife has chimed in to express her concerns over “technology addiction”. Where Michelle Obama fights obesity, or Samantha Cameron glides around fashion councils, Emine Erdogan has said that social media is worse than alcohol, drugs and gambling.

Last week marked the funeral of Berkin Elvan. The 15-year-old boy died nine months after being hit by a police canister during the Gezi Park protests, reigniting a new wave of protests. Erdogan did not utter a word of condolence. Ironically he emphasised his tech credentials instead, claiming that his role was to “give children tablet computers”, not supply them with “molotov cocktails, stones or slings”.

But who are these mighty robots launching “hashtag wars” on Twitter? Images from Battlestar Galactica spring to mind. Is my sister a soldier in the robot lobby? Will her eyes turn to lasers and fry our next family lunch?

Maybe the Erdogans have a point – are we just narcissistic millennials? Last week two guys in Istanbul even took and tweeted a selfie at a major police crackdown. The picture of protesters grinning defiantly as they were packed into the back of a police van became known as the “Ellen selfie” and went viral.

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Engin Önder is one of these “technology addicts” rattling the prime minister’s offline cage. A co-founder of Turkey’s popular citizen journalism network, 140journos, he and his friends have been documenting news on Twitter since early 2012. They have tweeted ferociously from left, conservative and LGBTQ protests, as well as courtrooms where accredited journalists were not allowed in. Önder does not strike me as a member of some kind of robot lobby – but I remain sceptical.

“I’d only attended one rally before 140journos,” he says – a Don’t Touch My Internet protest in June 2011. So if these twentysomethings are not really conspiring against the government, what exactly are they trying to achieve? His fellow co-founder Cem Aydogdu wanted to cover citizen news because his father had kicked him out of the house for reading alternative newspapers. “Cem wanted to hack his parents and sway his father,” says Önder.

As the Gezi protests kicked off, the 140journos network grew by six times almost overnight. The grievances of young people all around Turkey streamed through their timeline. Verifying and curating thousands of tweets 24/7, they did not leave his small apartment in Istanbul for days.

For Turkey’s Generation Y, who grew up with the internet, defending the freedom to share information online becomes at least equally, if not more, important than individual politics. Just under 50% are online every day. They are often willing to put themselves at personal risk to capture images from the frontline of protests.

Many are trying to hack a way out of the political crisis closing in on them. The deepening polarisation is intensified by Erdogan’s bellicose rhetoric. Generation Y tweets through teargas to expose how absurd the reductive narratives of the political elite are. They poke fun at the dismissive language of government officials. They mock the mainstream media that is complicit in misrepresenting them.

The country’s young protesters do not document their struggle on social media because they are narcissistic millennials. Yes, they want to be visible, but not for likes or pokes or friends; they document their resistance to cultivate social empathy for everyone. They are not a self-affirming group who bury their heads in the sand when violence hits other homes. They are aware that preaching to the young and already-converted, and ignoring the rest of Turkish society out in the analog cold generates a dangerous sense of “us v them”. They do not want to be portrayed in these divisive terms, which cement their differences. There is no need.

Cem’s father, for example, who used to read just one newspaper, has since become an activist who now encourages young people at protests to send reports to 140journos.

“We are just like everyone else,” says Ali Emre Mazlumoglu, one of the 13 protesters from the “Ellen selfie in the police van”. “But what makes us peculiar in the midst of all the pressure and violence is that we can still laugh our way through it all.” Governed by a prime minister who can’t stand political satire in cartoons, or thinks passersby who give him the middle finger should be detained, young people in Turkey are holding on tight to their mobile phones – and to their sense of humour.

Stefan Collini on Habermas and the public sphere

No truer words were spoken on Habermas’s famous argument and its use in the U.S academia.

“The extensive literature in English that has grown up around Habermas’s notion of ‘the public sphere’ has perhaps been primarily notable as an illustration of the pitfalls involved in taking a phrase out of one very particular conceptual scheme and intellectual idiom, processing it through a kind of academic equivalent of Ellis Island, and then leaving it to make its fortune in the competitive market of American academic discourse” (Collini 2006, p 55-56).

Review: Revisiting the Frankfurt School: Essays on Culture, Media and Theory

For a media studies student from Turkey living in the U.S, it’s been a scholarly rich but emotionally difficult summer so far. Turkey’s media instituted a blackout during the most heated days of the Gezi protests, and many journalists in the country have been enduring physical, verbal, and editorial violence on a day-to-day basis for the last 2 months. On the other side of the world that I’ve spent most of the summer, an awful account of NSA surveillance could not attract enough public attention because most pundits and journalists were busy debating why the whistleblower Snowden should be put in jail and whether or not Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who has bravely covered the scandal, should also be arrested or not. The snarky in me is not particularly surprised (which part of those revelations is really new?) but it is not easy to process all of that either. To make sense of the relationship between the state, capitalism, and the media — and to think about how to resist all that’s coming from the corporate media — I think we should go back to re-reading the Frankfurt School. Here’s my review of a great book on the LSE Review of Books for a start – you can also read it below:

David Berry’s edited volume is a project of re-reading the work of the Frankfurt School with clear eyes, open minds, and the wisdom of contemporary media studies, in order to identify writers associated with the school that have until now been neglected from discussion. We all know of the Frankfurt School greats – Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas amongst others – but to whom else from this period of great social, political and economic unrest should we look?

Gripped by European fascism and the capitalist economy of the United States, those at the Frankfurt School focused upon the critical study of mass-mediated cultural texts in the context of their political and economic production and distribution. Horkheimer and Adorno’s seminal work on the culture industries, Habermas’s study of the mass media and the public sphere, and Marcuse’s “one-dimensional man” all show how media and culture, under the shadow of liberal capitalism, could process and tamper with social conflict, throwing its traditional role of critique out of the window. These authors argued that the commercial imperatives that drove cultural production validated the values of market societies and at the same time integrated social and political life into the capitalist framework. Berry’s book provides an opportunity to view the School “in a wider rather than narrowly defined context”, aiming to look beyond the well-trodden ground of the “Magic Bullet” and hypodermic syringe models.

The authors draw attention to the contributions of those that are rarely-associated with or stand on the periphery of the Frankfurt School’s output, such as Siegfried Kraceur, a mentor to Adorno and one of the first intellectuals to study the masses, and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who was first to use the term ‘consciousness industry’. Both the neglected ideas of Leo Lowenthal in relation to media studies, and Erich Fromm’s work concerning culture and consumerism find themselves a well-deserved place in this book. The inclusion of these lesser well known academics is certainly a most refreshing aspect of the book, and cross readings and comparisons offer a stimulating account of understanding what constitutes Frankfurt School thinking, opening up new lines of inquiry in studying both critical theory and the sociology of intellectuals.

In “Walter Benjamin in the Intellectual Field,” Alan O’Connor traces the background and intellectual environment of Walter Benjamin, a literary critic and essayist whose writings provide an unprecedented philosophical depth and cultural breadth. Merging literature with philosophy, German idealism with historical materialism, and critical theory with Jewish mysticism, Benjamin’s writing cut across many disciplines and forms, and have been an enduring inspiration for media studies, critical theory, and philosophy. Through a highly original inquiry, O’Connor identifies the connections between Benjamin’s highly rich work and Bourdieu’s habitus – his famous conception for, in broad strokes, socialized subjectivity. Benjamin’s work is constitutive of the contradictions among his class position, political commitments, and intellectual conversations with diverse authors, argues O’Connor. In tandem with what Bourdieu would expect to see, Benjamin is quite reflexive about those ambiguities in his intellectual life as well as works. O’Connor’s analysis of Benjamin’s habitus and reflexivity reflects nicely on the examples of his writings presented in the chapter.

In “Max Horkheimer: Issues Concerning Liberalism and Culture,” David Berry presents an analysis of Horkheimer’s own thoughts concerning culture in a liberal context, which are much neglected in the larger literature. Berry cogently traces Horkheimer’s writings, and other scholars’ works on Horkheimer, to show the foundations of his theories on social justice in relation to liberalism and mass culture. Opening up how a critical Marxist perspective meets Schopenhauer’s concept of pessimism in Horkheimer’s work, he demonstrates how his idea of freedom became to be possible “out of human suffering and critical thinking”. Bringing his thoughts to life, Berry presents a profound picture of this theory and does not refrain from pointing out Horkheimer’s often-contradictory statements. While Horkheimer convincingly argues that mass culture governed by liberalism discredits suffering as a basis for social change by creating a strong sense of individuality and reason, he also finds himself in changing positions on his own pessimism regarding emancipation and oppression.

Robert E. Babe compares Theodor Adorno with Dallas Smythe, a leading figure in political economy of communications, with respect to their methods of and approaches to studying the media. Although both were coming from a Marxist tradition, the authors reflected on different “conceptions of evil”, for Adorno was focusing on fascism and Smythe on monopoly capitalism. They both believed the media, or culture industry, were the enablers of those evils, but they employed different methods to unravel that. Rather than normatively judging their differences, however, Babe convincingly walks the reader through the minds of those authors and, in a way, puts them in conversation only to show the various ways, and goals, of studying the control of the media, which, both Adorno and Smythe would agree as an important basis of political power.

Perhaps channeling the contradictions, inconsistencies, and the diversity of the School, some chapters seem to be in disharmony with the rest of the volume. Almost every author, in his or her own way, tries to connect the Frankfurt School of thought to the contemporary media and communication studies – and very interestingly so. However, in some cases, their ambitious projects coupled with the scope of their topics are larger than what a chapter can cover, thereby failing to satisfy the reader and leaving her asking for more. Nonetheless, this book is a valuable contribution to critical theory and media and communication studies from thoughtful scholars who perceptively revive the Frankfurt School tradition to make sense of the technologically assisted cultural processes and politics of our times.

The Gezi protests and the media

My recent take on the state of the media in and on Turkey during the Gezi protests was published on LSE’s European Politics and Policy blog (EUROPP). You can read it here or below.

From a couple dozen activists occupying Istanbul’s Gezi Park to almost month-long protests in several cities, since May 27, Turkey has experienced an unprecedented wave of uprisings. While many pundits and analysts are tripping over each other to explain what those protests mean for democracy a la Turca, let’s take a look at the media that have played a crucial role in the protests from the start. Not because social media have triumphed –again- in organizing masses and spreading information. They did, but that is not news anymore post-Arab Spring. The real story is that the media, and journalism to be more precise, have become the common foe that has united those on either side of the political polarisation the country has been going through. For the protestors, the media have emerged as one of the acute symptoms of their political concerns; for the government and AKP supporters, they have spurred, if not orchestrated, the uprisings.

Turkey is no stranger to mass demonstrations, but, for the first time, the multitude have actively made the media coverage of their grievances an essential part of their protest. In the most heated days of the Occupy Gezi demonstrations, the media blackout resulted in a popular Twitter hashtag, #korkakmedya (coward media) followed by regular sit-ins outside news organizations where hundreds chanted “sell-out media” and waved money. When the blackout ended and news organizations turned their cameras to the protests, however, people were not only discontented with the coverage, but they did not trust the “facts” – however contentious that term is in itself. For some, facts were tilting toward the official perspective, downplaying the levels of police crackdown and silencing alternative voices. For others, facts were being re-constructed, wrapped with the biases of their institutions.

Media in Taksim Square Credit: Eser Karadağ (Creative Commons BY ND)

Owned by a handful of conglomerates that constantly seek to tender public contracts, many news organizations in Turkey can be identified as pro-government no matter what their political views are. After last week when a former AKP deputy was appointed as the new editor-in-chief of the seizedAkşam newspaper, it is fair to say that pro-AKP news organizations now constitute the majority of the media landscape. There are always rough political lines that distinguish a liberal newspaper from a conservative one in almost every country, but now in Turkey those lines are so heavily drawn and so incestuously connected to the political and economic circles that many journalists (have to) throw their professional ethics out the window.

Hasan Cömert, who recently resigned from his job at NTV due to its coverage, or lack thereof, of the protests, says that when a journalist embarks on a career in Turkey, the first thing she has to learn is not how to report but where to draw the lines of her coverage. Although people in Turkey have known of such media control for a long time, with the Gezi protests those issues hit home. Birsen Altayli, a Reuters reporter who asked a question to Prime Minister Erdoğan during a live press meeting on TV that was not “pre-approved,” was immediately accused of misinforming the public – by asking follow-up questions apparently. Several journalists who tried to cover the protests in the streets have become targets of violence themselves as they were assaulted, verbally abused, and detained by police. (I’ve been trying to track and document violence against journalists in Turkey during the protests here).

Pro-government media, along with the official viewpoint that blamed the protests on a vaguely defined “interest rate lobby” and foreign media, soon started going after certain journalists. The daily Takvim, for example, published a fake interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on its front page with a headline that read “Dirty Confession.” In the interview, Amanpour was quoted as reporting on Gezi protests “for money.” It was only a small disclaimer inside that revealed that the interview was a spoof. Last week, the news director of Takvim petitioned an Istanbul prosecutor’s office accusing Amanpour of “inciting hatred and enmity” and “praising the crime and the criminal” – infamous clauses of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) that have enabled Turkey to jail the most number of journalists in the world.

Slandering journalists took a different, and highly personal, turn when Ankara’s pro-AKP mayor, Melih Gökçek, singled out Selin Girit of the BBC Turkish Service as an “English spy” who was orchestrating the protests – because she was reporting on and quoting protestors in her coverage on Twitter.  It was Gökçek’s “democratic reaction” to expose what journalists such as Girit were doing, and to rally his followers in popularizing hashtags on Twitter and bullying Girit for committing journalism. This week, Turkey’s deputy PM, Beşir Atalay, was heard in a video, saying, “international press directed the episodes in Gezi Park,” and he did not fail to tie foreign media ownership to Jewish Diaspora.

Underlying the government officials’ attacks on the international media is their political manoeuvres to deflect the criticism that comes from their own political base. And it partly owes to the fact that some media’s reductive framing of “Turkish spring” was found to be offensive to AKP supporters. Erdoğan’s government is duly elected and quite popular, and the protestors have made it quite clear from the start that they are not seeking to overthrow the government.

It is, however, quite predictable for the media, and particularly the international media, to bury their own value judgments, ignorance, and routines into their coverage particularly when it comes to protests that are traditionally framed as “a disruption to the norm.” Sometimes those frames evolve as the momentous protests transform into full-fledged movements, and sometimes the media’s interest is mostly limited to the “events” such as police crackdown or mass demonstrations – in Turkey’s case, for example, the media’s gaze has rarely turned from clashes in squares to the flourishing neighbourhood forums where people eagerly experiment with direct democracy.

The brutal reality about the media in and on Turkey is that room for professional journalism that dispassionately reports facts and earns people’s trust is quickly shrinking. Whether news comes from inside or outside, it is either laced with the institutional biases of news organizations, which are usually rooted in political and economic interests, or perceived as “manufactured” because a journalist is always assumed to be on one side of the political spectrum. In a way, Turkey’s case is not entirely different from many European countries and the United States that try to seek the plurality of facts amidst the inflammatory voices of the biased media. In many of those countries, at least, there are some journalists who still aspire to reporting facts with objectivity even though most know that it is never a reality. However, in Turkey’s media environment, it seems that there is not much aspiration, expectation or encouragement left for “facts.”

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