Occupy Gezi: Sparking Turkey’s Media Reform Movement?
The whole world has been watching Occupy Gezi since at least last week. Well, not on Turkish mainstream media though. “Revolution” cannot be televised in Turkey, as the mainstream media remained utterly silent on the Gezi Park crowd, masses in the streets, and, most importantly, police brutality in the most heated four days of the anti-government protests. A media system dominated by a few owners that secure financial reward through an incestuous relationship with the government has failed people (again) when they needed it most. In the midst of such disappointment, however, has emerged a growing popular protest that promises to challenge the existing media policy and journalism practices in Turkey.
In a country that infamously jails the most number of journalists, one could have expected a certain level of trivialization or negativity toward Occupy Gezi when it kicked off on May 27. What happened between May 31 and June 3, however, was a new low for the country when Turkish TV channels showed anything but protests, completely ignoring the outcry on social media. Many international journalists were reporting live from Taksim Square while their Turkish counterparts were appallingly blinded, airing a live talk program by three experts discussing schizophrenia, cooking shows or documentaries on penguins.
When #OccupyGezi has become one of the most popular hashtags on Twitter since May 31, millions of tweets sent under that were reporting or lamenting not only police violence or solidarity with protestors, but also the ongoing neglect by the Turkish media in covering the protests — except when officials such as the PM Erdogan or Mayor and Governor of Istanbul held press meetings. #korkakmedya (coward media) has soon started circulating with a growing critical tone and awareness of the structural problems in Turkish media. Protestors in Taksim Square wrote “For Sale,” “Fake News,” and “Tayyip ❤ NTV” on the NTV minivan.
Some displays carried newspapers that did not report on the protests with stickers on them that read “yandas media” (partisan, agitprop).
On June 2, all eyes were fixed on Haberturk TV which is owned by Ciner Group that is active in a broad range of business from energy to mining and has very recently bought another popular TV channel. Journalist Fatih Altayli conducted an exclusive interview with PM Erdogan, which “turned to a parody of ‘politicial-journalist’ accord” in Yavuz Baydar’s words. Altayli cravenly asked Erdogan about Occupy Gezi protests, and to the end of the program, he ostensibly criticized media’s behavior by saying “both you and our viewers find journalists biased.” When he doesn’t directly instruct journalists and editors on what to cover, PM Erdogan re-regulates the media by personally expressing his frustration with certain organizations or journalists).
Next day, protestors, many of whom were white-collar, left their plazas for their lunch break and gathered outside the NTV building in Maslak, Istanbul. The crowd also brought Turkish lira notes asking how much it would cost to be aired on NTV. And, not surprisingly, some journalists joined the protest both outside the building holding placards and by declaring their resignation on Twitter.
In addition to a similar sit-in that took place outside Sabah Newspaper, owned by Calik Holding, which has close ties to the government (the chairman of the board is the son-in-law of the PM), people started calling into TV shows and bringing up Occupy Gezi on live television.
One of the most popular, and creative, culture jamming cases came from a quiz show host, Ali Ihsan Varol, who asked his guests to guess Occupy Gezi related words. A more detailed account by Zeynep Tufekci is here.
Turkey’s first privately owned news network, NTV, is also part of a large conglomerate, Dogus Holding, which owns a major stake in Garanti Bank, one of the largest in Turkey. Dogus Holding has very recently won Galataport tender in Istanbul – the privatization project of one of the top 10 ports in Europe. Soon a boycott has spread on social media against Garanti Bank due to NTV’s inadequate coverage of protests and people have started cancelling their credit cards and withdrawing savings.
“Medyayi Boykot Ediyoruz,” a Facebook group initiated by two Ph.D. students Mert Arslanalp and Berk Esen, is one of the many calls for boycotting the companies of those media conglomerates. “We thought that the only way to change the existing parameters was to induce economic costs on these business groups,” say Arslanalp and Esen. But they also add that “the long term structural solution is to develop a model of journalism and media that can remain outside capitalist market relations, and prohibit the media groups to be connected to business groups invested in other sectors.”
Arslanalp and Esen are spot-on to point out the Turkish media landscape dominated by big media organizations that are owned by a handful of CEOs who seek all sorts of economic interests through government contracts. What we see through the Occupy Gezi coverage, or lack thereof, is the implosion of this particular model of media power: a dangerous partnership between corporations driven by an insatiable appetite for more profits and the government that seeks more control over the public.
As Christian Christensen insightfully points out, through a deregulatory process that can be traced back to the 1990s, Turkey has long witnessed similar “‘clientelist’ relationships between media patrons and the state, whereby the former began to exert pressure on politicians to maximize their profits in their other activity areas using their media outlets.”Erdogan government’s pressure on media groups, such as the disproportionate tax fines imposed on the Dogan Media, has only compounded the intensity of such dangerously close relationships. And there is no effective regulating mechanism or legal accountability in this process as many international organizations and academics have noted several times. (For more research and policy analysis follow the links in Sameer Padania‘s recent post).
Many journalists who account varying degrees of (self) censorship in the newsrooms due to intimidation and fear of courts have almost no room for resistance, since they cannot unionize effectively. Ahmet Şık’s dismissal from his newspaper due to union activities in 2005 and his following failure in being employed again deter many from collective resistance. Not to mention the rapidly increasing number of journalists, junior or senior, who are laid off when their stories do not please the governing elite.
When all the mainstream media remained silent on the protest, it was only Halk TV that is owned by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) that showed the protests live. Citizen journalism on social media has immediately emerged as the “savior” against the cowardice and censorship of the mainstream media, but many have soon realized that without professional reporting, they fall short of the accurate information needed for public discussion. People were usually left scrambling through hundreds of tweets, drowning in conflicting accounts with no serious fact-checking and no way of holding anyone to account. Particularly when the protests, and police violence, have spread to other cities than Istanbul, people have felt the urgent need for effective media organizations that report objectively from the ground.
Any good news on news?
Not everything was doom and gloom in the last week though. Journalists such as Serdar Akinan, who broke the accidental bombing of Kurdish smugglers in Roboski (Uludere in Turkish) in December 2011, are tweeting from the park. In addition to the continuous reporting by Turkey’s counter-media movement, 140journos, and alternative media such as Bianet, Occupy Gezi has created its own media. A group of activists has formed the “Occupy Gezi News” (or “Istanbul’da Ne Oluyor”) collective “to provide reliable information and facilitate the information flow during resistance process.” As Bianet’s Yuce Yoney reports, “the website refrains from publishing information before confirming with eyewitnesses and only publishes first-hand information as a principle.” According to the activists, “these platforms also intend to sustain the spirit of this great resistance by keeping the memories of the protests, especially in a country where the current political agenda shifts in a flash.”
While the rising popularity of alternative media is promising, what Turkey needs is a reinvigoration of its media landscape to truly serve the public good and report in the public interest. Last Monday, right after the PM Erdogan has left the country, TV channels started covering the protests, albeit limitedly. “Our audience feels like they were betrayed,” NTV quoted Dogus CEO Cem Aydin Tuesday after meeting with the channel’s staff, adding that the criticism against the station was “fair to a large extent.” But the current messages on social media show that people are still skeptical about those media’s coverage of the protests, and they demand “an explanation, not an apology” for their 3-day dead silence.
Occupy Gezi is celebrating its tenth day today. As Jay Cassano perceptively identifies, it is “government abuse of power that Turks are protesting.” Therefore, a media reform movement is not only important but also essential for the protests to secure a democracy that extends beyond the elections and a media system that takes on the watchdog role. A popular resentment is already here. What we need now is to keep on demanding a system that amplifies diverse sources and perspectives, fosters more public involvement, and holds unacceptable journalistic practices to account. Turkey’s media reform movement may be rising on the horizon.
*All images have largely been circulating on social media unless stated otherwise.