It's more than just an easy target...
Who is really behind the scenes in Taksim Square? Ignoring the discontent emanating from the population, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan points the finger squarely at the TV cameras of the BBC and CNN. In doing so, he is copying tactics used by dictators in difficulty all over the world.
On March 30, 2011, long before the Syrian revolt turned into civil war, President Bashar al-Assad appeared on state television blaming the riots on the work of “foreign conspirators” and the lies of the “satellite broadcasters.” Two years and 95,000 deaths later, his supporters in the Alawite enclave of Tartus continue to use the Internet to spread the notion that the “international media” has legitimized the rebels’ cause.
Damascus’s claims parallel those of now deposed Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, both so unaccustomed to the mere concept of opposition that they pinned the blame for the – in their eyes otherwise inexplicable – revolts on the media. “The press and TV are destroying the country,” raged Mubarak on February 10, 2011 while his henchmen hunted down foreign reporters.
Irony in Internet age
Now Mubarak’s long-term nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood is mimicking its authoritarian predecessor to such an extent that six months ago in Washington, President Mohammed Morsi stated that the protests against the new constitution were due to “evil propaganda” being spread by the U.S. media.
This appears to be an inevitable reflex of struggling dictators. When people took the streets after the controversial results of the 2009 Iranian elections were released, Teheran and the state media laid the blame firmly at the door of the international media. “When announcing the results of the vote, which didn’t favor their candidate, some international media – like BBC Persia, al-Arabiya, Fox and CNN – created the social and political divisions which led to the conflict”.
Hugo Chavez used to tell the same story, which has now been taken up by the Venezuelan Minister of Commerce Alejandro Fleming who claims international media outlets are “installing fear in consumers” to turn them against the government.
Authoritarian regimes take particular issue with the international press, which they believe to be less easily influenced. Just a few months ago, Chinese state TV channel CCTV broadcasted the “confession” of a Tibetan rebel who revealed that it was Voice of America that convinced him to set fire to himself “to become a hero.” In 2011, the spokesperson for Foreign Minister Jiang Yu used the same arguments to explain away the sit-in by human rights activists in the Beijing shopping street Wangfujing.
In short, Erdogan’s response is nothing new. Even in the democratic world political leaders blow hot and cold with the press. Obama’s former contender, Mitt Romney, like Sarah Palin before him, clashed with reporters after having his gaffes regularly highlighted. Unlike their colleagues working under dictatorships, American reporters continued to cover his blunders without thinking twice. It is, perhaps, ironic that while new technology often seems to be sending traditional media outlets into crisis mode, dictatorships continue to see them as the source of all their woes.