You are what you read

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.”

Why is Press Freedom Necessary for Everyone in Turkey?

June 28 marks the one month anniversary of the protests that arose out of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, and soon spread to many other parks and squares of Turkey. Mostly described as “Occupy Gezi” or “Diren Gezi” (Resist Gezi in Turkish), the protests have no central command and are evolving, perhaps into a full-fledged movement, as we speak. Protestors largely oppose Prime Minister Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism, mostly incarnated in his paternalistic governance derived from the majority of votes his party gained, and police repression against the protestors. Reclaiming public spaces in their neighbourhoods, they have recently been experimenting with direct democracy in forums where a collective dialogue with respect for diversity and gender equality thrives.

The rise of those protests has left many hopeful, others muddled, and almost half of the country angry. A systematic counter-publicity campaign led by the Prime Minister and officials of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has deliberately attempted to discredit protestors and the facts that constitute their grievances. Blaming the protests on a vaguely defined “interest rate lobby” and international media that are uncomfortable with Turkey’s economic growth, many AKP supporters repeatedly bend the truth. They have so far claimed that protestors drank in a mosque (the muezzin of the mosque who was there that night refuted those claims), drawn similarities between protests in Brazil and Turkey, hence foreign plotting, and pointed out foreign publications that “fabricate news.” Examples of misinformation are not limited to AKP supporters and officials though; some supporters of the protests have also circulated spurious pictures and claims, mostly on social media.

In tandem with the political polarization looming over the country, if not spurred by the politicians, mainstream and social media have become a battlefield where reports of spam, blocking, slander and falsehood are weapons of both sides. Where should citizens turn to when they are left scrambling through hundreds of tweets, drowning in conflicting accounts on their TVs with no serious fact-checking and no way of holding anyone to account? Journalists? Well, easier said than done. If there is one common foe that has united many who have been involved in either side of the political contention, those are certainly journalists in Turkey. In a country that infamously jails the most number of journalists, and stays systematically blinded to the coverage of Kurdish resistance, one could have expected a certain level of tension towards, and from, the media. The mainstream news organizations first failed people by instituting an utter blackout during the first couple days of Occupy Gezi. After they started covering the protests, accusations of bias, distortion, censorship, and intentional exclusion have been steadily leveled from both sides towards domestic and international media.

Above: CNN International live from Istanbul on June 11, 2013. Below: Same time on CNN Turk it reads "Marginal groups attack police with molotov cocktails and stones"

Above: CNN International live from Istanbul on June 11, 2013. Below: Same time on CNN Turk it reads “Marginal groups attack police with molotov cocktails and stones”

We live in tough times to be a journalist and Turkey is no exception. In addition to the political and economic violence conducted by the state’s media watchdog in the form of fines, media organizations fear reprisals by government officials and courts. Over the last four weeks, journalists who were in the streets to cover the protests have had to suffer through teargas and pepper spray, injuries caused by teargas canisters, and attacks of water cannons as the police violence was escalating. Moreover, they were particularly assaulted, verbally abused, or detained by police. Rather than being protected by their professional status, many abused journalists have suggested that press passes have rendered them specific targets for police (I’ve been trying to track and document violence against journalists in Turkey during the protests here).

Gokhan Bicici of IMC TV was detained on June 16, 2013. After detention, his gas mask was taken, his ipad was seized, and he was dragged on the ground by police.

Gokhan Bicici of IMC TV was detained on June 16, 2013. After detention, his gas mask was taken, his ipad was seized, and he was dragged on the ground by police.

Pro-government media and some AKP officials have targeted journalists such as Ece Temelkuran or Can Dündar as the instigators of the protests. AKP’s Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek has recently singled out Selin Girit of the BBC Turkish service and accused her of being an “English agent” because she tweeted discussions from one of the neighborhood forums. His slander was not only retweeted by some of the ministers of the government, not to mention the Prime Minister who referred to it in a speech, but also taken up by the AKP’s social media groups as Gökçek rallied his followers to condemn Girit and her coverage of the protests, which never went beyond merely witnessing and reporting on reality.

Amidst the deluge of misinformation and slander, people in Turkey desperately need objective journalism. Journalists’ reporting in the country, however, has been physically and symbolically hindered on many levels – and even when they did cover the protests, their stories are read with suspicion by both sides of the political polarity. I accept the fact that the relationship between reporting and power is too complex and not always easy to unpack in the urgency of political uprisings. But there are also bare minimums that need to be met in order to turn the ongoing protests into a fruitful democratic debate – much needed in light of the upcoming local elections in March 2014. We need not only facts but also a diverse range of views and voices represented to all. Thus, it is pressing for Turkey to have a media system in which journalists can offer information, investigation, and social empathy.

As the protests in Turkey complete a month, both AKP supporters and the protestors need to channel their frustration with the media into a political reform that not only breaks the legal-commercial link between the government and media owners’ cross-sector ownership, but also enables a space where journalists can speak and report freely. Police violence against journalists should stop immediately, as should the slander and intimidation that individually targets reporters on social media and are encouraged by government officials. Press freedom is not only necessary for, or in the interest of, journalists. As citizen journalists on the social media and news consumers, we all have a stake in fighting back against encroachments on freedom of expression.

Sociologist Michael Schudson argues that journalism does not produce democracy where democracy does not exist, but it can help democracies thrive. There is no doubt that Turkey is a democracy, albeit an imperfect one as all democracies are. No matter which side of the protests you support, however, we all resent the violations of our personal and social space, and the media and journalists are no exception. We should all demand a better media system to give journalists the space they deserve to facilitate our collective democratic experience and to hold the powerful accountable.

The Image as Evidence: Taksim Protesters, Provocateurs and a Potential False Flag

This is a  guest post by Brandon Thomas who is an MA student at San Francisco State University currently living in Istanbul, Turkey. He previously edited Conflict Images Journal, an online publication focusing on representational practices during armed conflicts and their impact on the international spectrum of human relations. 

In the early morning of June 11, government officials in Turkey announced a planned incursion into Taksim Square to clean up banners and flags hung on the Ataturk Cultural Center. Despite a promise to avoid the use of force, pepper spray and low-pressure water cannons were used to disrupt the ongoing occupation.image 1

In the ensuring pandemonium, amidst several live news broadcasts and user-submitted video feeds, a group of five individuals attacked police vehicles with firecrackers and Molotov cocktails. Advancing across a 15-meter space of barren concrete behind makeshift barricades, the individuals lobbed their projectiles ineffectively for over an hour before being rousted. The Guardian’s Luke Harding described the attacks as “suspiciously theatrical and inept… at one point advancing in a hopeless Roman-style assault.”

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Following the police incursion and the Molotov incident, protestors were quick to distance themselves from the five assailants. Tweets directed at #gezipark and #direngeziparki immediately cried conspiracy and suggested that the individuals involved were actually government provocateurs planted with the intention of vilifying the protest movement. Images suggesting evidence of a false flag operation quickly went viral, despite recent news reports that the detained suspect is a member of a terrorist organization.

The text reads “Is that a firework in his hand and a gun at his waist? Who is this with the Molotov cocktail?”

The text reads “Is that a firework in his hand and a gun at his waist? Who is this with the Molotov cocktail?”

image 5

In an attempt to further support the narrative of the agent provocateurs, users uploaded screenshots taken from the live broadcast to suggest that police intentionally missed the planted demonstrators, and juxtaposed images from previous day’s protests to demonstrate the difference in police behavior. Other social media users questioned why no attempt was made to capture the provocateurs despite their proximity to authorities.

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The top right image in the photocollage circles the molotov cocktail, while the top left image indicates the proximity of police to the attackers, suggesting the police’s inability to apprehend their assailants is questionable. Bottom left, two images depict water cannons missing their targets. The final images of PM Tayip Erdogan with an Oscar and the retooling of the police badge with tragicomic masks bolster the interpretation that the attacks are nothing but a farce put on by government-backed provocateurs.

The top right image in the photocollage circles the molotov cocktail, while the top left image indicates the proximity of police to the attackers, suggesting the police’s inability to apprehend their assailants is questionable. Bottom left, two images depict water cannons missing their targets. The final images of PM Tayip Erdogan with an Oscar and the retooling of the police badge with tragicomic masks bolster the interpretation that the attacks are nothing but a farce put on by government-backed provocateurs.

While the claims of agent provocateurs may be chalked up as yet another conspiracy theory, it is important to note how quickly photography became the medium of evidence relied upon to convey this message. Although documentary evidence does not amount to proof of a government conspiracy to frame the protesters in a negative light, people are prone to be persuaded by photographs, especially if the images depict a background belief the viewer already holds.

In hyper-paranoid Istanbul, protesters already distrust the ruling Freedom and Justice Party (AKP) regime, and accuse them of eroding Turkey’s core secularist values, censoring news coverage of the protests, and more saliently, of lying about police motives for entering Taksim Square just to remove flags. The protesters and the people who support them, therefore, are likely to be convinced by accusations of government-planted rabble-rousers, especially when mass-mediated images such as these reinforce that distrust.

An interesting corollary, however, is that these images are likely to have little or even opposite effects on AKP supporters. Since images exist within a rhetorical context, they are perceived in terms of a motive. This motive-image connection is likely to play out strongly with AKP supporters who will associate these images with the motives of the distributors (i.e. protesters and their supporters) and therefore interpret a conspiracy in the opposite direction – that is, an attempt by the protesters to frame the government in a negative light.

Though we may never know the truth about the middle-aged man with the Molotov cocktail, the campaign to demonstrate his agent provocateur status stands as a unique example of the multi-directional nature of photographs as evidence. Indeed, as events continue to unfold in Istanbul, images such as these will likely continue to play a critical role in maintaining beliefs, identities and norms for the individuals involved in the increasingly polarized Turkish protest movement.

The author received these images through Twitter, Facebook, and various other social media sites.  Like most viral images shared online, photo credits were not appended to the files.  Any information on the photographers is always is welcome.

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.

Cnn-international-versus-CNN-TurkeyWhen #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.

ntv mini van

Some displays carried newspapers that did not report on the protests with stickers on them that read “yandas media” (partisan, agitprop).

https-::twitter.com:apakberkaystatus:341208972684050433:photo:1.jpg-largeOn 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).

As soon as the interview was over, hundreds gathered outside the Haberturk TV chanting “sellout media” and waving money – they were ready to pay for the coverage of Occupy Gezi.haberturk outside after interview

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.

outside ntv waving money

“We’ll pay whatever it costs”

Ntv-workers-chapulling_Wikipedia

“NTV people are chapulling”

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.

health show-call in

Health show call-in: “I’ve had a headache for 10 years” (re: Erdogan’s tenure)

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.

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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.

ozurdegilaciklama

“We want an official explanation, not an apology”

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.

Better late than never: What is #OccupyGezi and what does it promise (now)?

tumblr_mntrhyJEZL1ste7qoo1_1280When I wrote a post last Thursday on Occupy Gezi (#occupygezi) I was both terrified by the extent of police violence towards a couple dozens of peaceful activists and excited about Turkey’s own Occupy moment, which, I personally believed, had arrived much belatedly. Over the last weekend, people in Turkey have flexed their political muscles more strongly than ever, both in the streets and on social media, thereby creating, according to some, the biggest civil disobedience movement of the country in history. Last week, I was wondering why Turkey’s Occupy moment has arrived now. Since then, many people on social media have debated whether Occupy Gezi is Turkey’s Occupy Wall Street or Tahrir – which is a question arguably loaded with many value judgments, misinformation, and ignorance, but it is also a genuine attempt to get a grip on the revolt of masses in Turkey: What is #Occupy Gezi?

To an extent, I share sociologist Zeynep Tufekci’s insight, who by the way wrote a compelling post on the protest, that Occupy Gezi is neither Tahrir nor OWS but a representation of increasing political polarization in the country.ZT

E.P. Thompson long ago argued that every resistance takes on the flavor of its context, therefore Occupy Gezi is constituted by, and constitutive of, the concerns of and the clashes between different political groups in Turkey. But what brings together many people in the park and in the streets is, and should be, fundamentally a demand to protect their rights and freedoms in a democratic society – which should not be undermined within the larger turmoil the country, and protestors, are going through these days.

The occupation of the Gezi Park has started on May 27 with protection of one of the few urban green spaces in Istanbul (planned to be demolished as part of the government’s so-called Taksim renovation project). But behind a handful of people’s protest lay a growing discontent with the recent urban transformation of Istanbul as well as global capitalism. The government’s neoliberal urban planning, which usually has to do with public spaces, proceeds in lockstep with a decision making process that not only leaves out dissent, but also condemns it constantly. David Kenner explains that the Taksim Platform, one of the local citizen initiatives, for example, had long opposed to those “urban renewal” projects but Erdogan’s government moved forward “by decree, with little public discussion of their plans.” Along with the Taksim Platform, many groups have been petitioning the government, but PM Erdogan publicly defied their opposition by saying the government had already made up their mind.

It is Erdogan’s, and his disciples’ in the government, dismissive and authoritarian politics, and the police’s dawn raid on May 30 when they teargassed occupiers and set fire to their tents that have sparked public anger. Extensively reliant on, and organized through, social media, protestors have kept on a diligent and mostly peaceful resistance since last Friday. Occupying not only the Gezi Park, but also Taksim Square as well as other public spaces in big cities such as Ankara, Izmir, and Adana, they have been seeking their right to a peaceful protest, and to the city. Police forces, however, have given a heavy-handed response of teargas firing, pepper spraying, and deploying water cannons, which, as many have reported, usually exceed reasonable levels of public security excuses. As the Financial Times’s Philip Stephens reports, PM Erdogan “has responded to the disturbance with a public rage that more than matches the anger of those who have occupied Istanbul’s Taksim square and staged protests in other big cities.” The mainstream media’s appalling self-censorship has stirred up further unrest, which deserves a post of its own.

The police repression keeps drawing more people in who come out day and night, chanting “against fascism,” and fortifying the barricades. But what, precisely, makes hundreds of thousands of people crazy enough to be in the streets surrounded by police to violently attack them? The political collective from the park, Taksim Dayanismasi, has recently announced their “urgent demands” and one can easily see that people’s first and foremost concern, and demand, is to end brutal police violence and take their right to protest back. Taksim Dayanismasi has listed the dismissal of Taksim Project, the resignation of the Governor of Istanbul and the head of National Police, the prohibition of gas weapons, and the protection of people’s right to protest and peaceful assembly. It is hard to know, and too early to decide, whether Occupy Gezi is a moment or a movement. An important, but fleeting spark of political polarization at worst, an opportunity to organize civil disobedience and sustain it through civic dialogue and participatory democracy at best.

For the moment, however, Occupy Gezi is Turkey’s most recent experimentation with democratic self-governance and public debate. In defiance of Erdogan’s own definition of democracy, the political legitimacy granted to his government does not solely rest on the majority of votes, and definitely does not mean acquiescence of systematically “marginalized” (both empirically and in his rhetoric) populations to a state that effectively precludes other options for them. People who come together under Occupy Gezi stand in solidarity with dissenters in, not authoritarian regimes, but ostensibly democratic countries whose elected leaders crush opposition in brutal ways. It is, and should be, a resistance of many colors, including Kurds and conservatives, that demand social justice and freedom for everyone. And it should give us an opportunity to keep on learning to live together, listening and understanding each other, and resisting the political and economic forces that undermine our democratic rights.

Right now, the whole world is watching Occupy Gezi (certainly not on the mainstream Turkish media though!). Things are tense in the streets, and the cracks within the movement are in the making. It is a time for many to decide whether to stand firm and resist or falter. And let’s be honest, ongoing police brutality is not making it easy for anyone to keep on resistance. But at the same time this is a long-awaited opportunity for coming together and defying political polarization that has been long provoked by leaders. Let’s keep building a people’s movement that is foremost committed to everyone’s right to free expression and voicing our grievances, which are all connected no matter what. And let’s take our cities back only to work together to turn them into spaces where a pluralistic and egalitarian democracy could thrive.

*Image from http://occupygezipics.tumblr.com/

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