Turkey Uprising Exposes Limits On Free Press, Power Of Social Media

Words and parks
Words and parks
Hakan Tanriverdi

ISTANBUL - "The media have sold out! The media have sold out!" several thousand protesters chanted in front of NTV offices. Their beef with the Turkish news channel was that it had stayed silent too long about what was going on in and around Gezi Park in Istanbul.

The protesters feel the press has let them down. When the demonstrations began in Istanbul, and the police let loose on peaceful demonstrators with pepper spray and tear gas, CNN International did broadcast some live pictures from Taksim Square. But the channel’s Turkish offshoot CNNTürk had something cuter scheduled that apparently couldn't be bumped: small penguins waddling through Antarctica.

So at some point, demonstrators had enough. They started texting the slogans the big news stations use to promote themselves, with some changes. NTV, the Haber kanali (in English, “news channel”), became Bihaber kanali, i.e. “the totally clueless channel.” They changed the CNNTürk slogan from Be the first to know to Be the first to silence it.

And just as the original issue that sparked the public anger – plans for an unpopular construction project – the criticism of the media is also the result of long pent-up anger.

The situation with the Turkish press is not pretty. According to the American organization "Committee to Protect Journalists," in 2011 5,000 legal proceedings were initiated against Turkish journalists. Turkey is also the country that has the most journalists in jail -- more than anywhere else in the world, including China and Iran.

Clauses in Turkish legislation about the rights of journalists are deliberately vague. Simply receiving certain documents or "influencing a court case" is enough to get a journalist into trouble with the law. Exactly what "influencing" means remains unstated, but it can sometimes constitute as little as asking a few questions. So Turkish news providers are in a bind, and have been well before the current protests.

Two examples illustrate this best:

On May 11, several bombs exploded in the small Turkish city of Reyhanli, and 51 people died. What did the Turkish press do? Nothing. The reason for their complete silence was that TV and radio regulatory authorities issued an order after the bombings that said that nothing was to reported about it, no articles, no photographs – nothing. Two journalists who disobeyed the orders and took some pictures were arrested and their cameras were confiscated.

In late 2011 journalist Serdar Akinan tweeted news about air attacks in the Uludere region where most inhabitants are Kurds. Thirty-five people were said to have lost their lives in the attacks. There was nothing at all about this on TV. So Akinan called a couple of TV colleagues and asked: "What’s up in Uludere?" He was told the information he had was correct but the station was waiting to get a statement from the government before it reported anything.

Later the government admitted that the air attack may have been "an accident." However right after it took place no station said a word about it. So Akinan traveled to Uludere and tweeted visuals of a mass burial that galvanized the Turkish press into reporting about the event. A success? Soon afterwards, Akinan's newspaper began laying off workers, and his job was one of the first to be cut.

Hashtags and self-censorship

As these examples make clear, the government has a firm grip on the press in Turkey and controls the information the media disseminate. In 2009, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan compared the country’s largest media group (Dogan Group) with American gangster Al Capone and slapped a two-billion-euro fine on it. Both the widely-distributed daily newspaper Hürriyet and CNNTürk belong to the Dogan Group. As the second example above shows, many media exercise self-censorship out of fear.

Protests have been ongoing in several Turkish cities for a number of days now. As of this writing, at least two people have been killed and hundreds injured.

However as the Turks unsurprisingly don’t trust their media, they prefer to get their news from social networks and blogs. The news about the bombs in Reyhanli was put out there by government critics on Twitter, under the hashtag #twitterkurds. Kurdish activists set that search term up years ago because they claimed that the Turkish media blank out all and any news that concerns Kurds.

In the most recent protests the news also comes out first via the social media – on Facebook pages, on the Tumblr blogging platform, and with Twitter hashtags like #occupygezi.

The problem with this is that genuine news often gets mixed up with incomplete information, rumors and deliberate lies. For example, many activists were sending out a visual of the Bosphorus Bridge that supposedly showed a huge surge of people heading for Istanbul’s Taksim Square to support demonstrators there. But the photo was actually taken during a marathon held in 2012. The rumor that the police were using "Agent Orange" – the highly toxic defoliant the United States armed forces used during the Vietnam War -- also flitted across the social networks.

Yet despite all the misinformation, the analysis of the current situation that is most posted and tweeted is that of a Turkish blogger and yoga teacher who isn’t currently in Turkey. She eloquently expresses the view that the current protests are about a lot more than a green zone being destroyed for an unpopular building project. This kind of analysis is what the people want to see their media delivering. Instead they get penguins.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!