Geopolitics

Online Resistance In Turkey

HaberSIZsiniz is the youngest of a new generation of online television channels
HaberSIZsiniz is the youngest of a new generation of online television channels
Delphine Minoui

ISTANBUL — The smartphone's video camera zigzags through the crowd. Amid a joyful brouhaha punctuated by applause, the young videomaker captures the first smiles and the excited faces, still stunned by the good news. "Asli Erdogan, Necmiye Alpay and Zana Kaya are free!," the journalist comments as she films the scene.

The date was Dec. 29, 2016, and a judge in the Turkish city of Caglayan, had just granted bail to the three writers accused of spreading "terror propaganda." The video, almost surrealistic in a country marred by censorship, is broadcast live via Periscope on HaberSIZsiniz, the youngest of a new generation of online television channels. It's a mini cultural revolution for Turkey, where independent media are being blacked-out as part of President Erdogan's authoritarian drift.

"With the serial closures of media outlets, our area of expression is more and more restricted," says Candan Yildiz, the reporter who captured the scene in the courtroom. "We've had to come up with new ways to inform, to find new back roads. The web has become our new agora."

A few days later, we meet her again at the Caribou Coffee, next to the pier. The emerald blue Bosphorus reaches out to the fishermen and the seagulls. A safe breathing space in the aftermath of the Reina nightclub on New Year's Eve and the political chaos that's been shaking up the country since the failed coup of July 15.

The 42-year-old journalist wears green glasses, the color of hope. She's previously worked for IMC, one of the dozens of opposition television networks that have been reduced to silence since last summer. More recently she helped found HaberSIZsiniz. The name reads like a play on words: It can mean either "You are without news' or "You are the news." The logo represents a chained television set.

"We launched HaberSIZsiniz two months ago to defend the population's right to be informed," Yildiz says. "Since last summer, 177 media outlets have been closed down and more than 100 journalists have been jailed. Most of the authorized networks speak with one voice. It's crucial we continue to do our job, not to let Turkey turn into a news black hole."

The project kicked off in late October with a first broadcast from a café in Ankara. Since then, they've been using all sorts of places as makeshift television studios: headquarters of independent associations that support the operation, the offices of the newspaper Cumhuriyet (also in the authorities' sights), courtrooms as in the case of Asli Erdogan's trial, and even sometimes in the street. The unconventional approach allows HaberSIZsiniz to tackle topics avoided by the pro-government press: women's rights, attacks on freedom of speech, the hunting down of opponents, etc.

Curled up in a former photography studio in Levent, Istanbul's business district, Medyascope is the leader of these new cyber-television networks. The ground floor, shrouded in a scent of coffee, has an open-space arrangement, with one studio equipped with two cameras on tripods, an open kitchen and a newsroom. The floor above has a few offices, including that of editor-in-chief Rusen Cakir, an investigative journalism veteran. When he launched the organization a year ago, thanks to donations from abroad, the idea was to create an alternative media outlet using new technologies. With time, it's become a default refuge.

"It's one of the rare media outlets where you can work in total freedom," says 28-year-old Burak Tatari, one of Medyascope's 20 journalists.

A few months ago, the young man walked away from the magazine Tempo after one of his investigative pieces about the southeastern part of the country — where security forces are fighting against the guerilla warfare waged by the Kurdish PKK forces — was shelved. His superiors found the topic too touchy.

"My article focused on civilians, including children affected by war," he says. "In no way did it side with the PKK. Which goes to show how much the media self-censor for fear of being accused of "supporting terrorism.""

Burak now hosts a daily news show that doesn't elude any topic, no matter how "sensitive" it might be. Among others, that includes the Turkish intervention in Syria, the economic crisis and the Constitutional reform. Ironically, he finds it very easy to invite renowned experts, especially when they're "blacklisted" by the official media.

"Here, all contributors are welcome. Unlike big TV networks, we can't afford to pay for their taxi. But we offer them coffee and, most importantly, the possibility to express themselves!" he says, laughing. A successful recipe with some 20,000 viewers daily for Medyascope, whose Twitter page has close to 50,000 followers.

Like HaberSIZsiniz or Medyascope, WeBiz aims at filling in the silences and gaps of the official Turkish media. It was founded by 38-year old Funda Tasun, formerly of IMC (like Yildiz). "To inform is to resist," she says.

Since its creation a few weeks ago, WeBiz has been accommodated by a small advertising agency, behind the famous Istiklal Avenue. Their studio is little more than a broom closet: one camera, a table, two chairs and a flat screen with the logo. "This is where, a few days ago, we received Basak, the wife of Selahattin Demirtas," Tasun says proudly.

Demirtas heads the pro-Kurdish HDP, a left-wing opposition party, and has been imprisoned for two months. For his wife, the interview was a golden opportunity to speak freely. It was seen live by 14,000 viewers and has been spreading on social media since then.

Tasun doesn't like the word "refuge" and she prefers the term "platform" or "discussion forum" to define this new type of journalistic format. "A refuge would suggest we feel safe. That's not the case," she says. "We know we can be at risk at any moment."

In a country where the authorities are indiscriminately targeting Fethullah Gulen supporters, pro-Kurdish activists and critics, the repression knows no limits. And neither does intimidation.

When they're not forced to close down, dissident media outlets are submitted to an online filter, and many struggle financially because they have difficulties selling advertising spaces to increasingly fearful publicists. To continue their work, these information guerilla fighters — as they call one another — have to take on part-time jobs to pay the bills.

"The good thing about it is we don't depend on anybody. Paradoxically, we've never been freer," Candan Yiliz says.

Her only reservation has to do with her audience. "We're attracting new visitors every day. But compared to the overall Turkish population, that's nothing. Is our work really having an impact on the public?" she asks before repeating HaberSIZsiniz's mantra. "As long as our cell phones aren't taken away we will continue to inform."

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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