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.