NICOLE POPE

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NICOLE POPE
January 24, 2013, Thursday

Hate speech, hate crimes?

What is happening in Samatya? Can it be a coincidence that on four occasions in the past few weeks, elderly women living on their own -- all of them of Armenian descent -- were targeted in brutal attacks? The latest assault took place on Tuesday, when 83-year-old Sultan Aykar was severely beaten by a masked assailant.

Her cries alerted the neighbors and the perpetrator fled. She is now in hospital and risks losing an eye. Another victim, aged 87, lost sight in one eye after being battered in early December, while 84 year-old Maritsa Küçük died on Dec. 28 after being repeatedly stabbed. A fourth elderly woman narrowly escaped being kidnapped in early January.

These attacks do not bear the hallmark of burglaries gone awry. Home thefts are not uncommon in İstanbul, as in all big cities, but Sultan Aykar's attacker -- said to be around 35, dressed entirely in black and wearing a ski mask -- did not even pick up her handbag.

This spate of attacks has inevitably rekindled concerns among non-Muslims in Turkey and raised suspicion that they are part of an organized drive against Armenians. Civil society organizations are following these incidents closely and demanding answers and improved security measures in areas like Samatya where many of Turkey's remaining Armenians reside. The Human Rights Association paid a visit to police headquarters on Wednesday and alerted the authorities to the possibility that these attacks may be hate crimes. The police are investigating but have so far not identified the culprits.

Six years after the murder of journalist Hrant Dink -- targeted after a long media and judicial campaign identifying him as an internal enemy -- has the risk of hate crimes receded? Has Turkey become a more inclusive society?

The Media Ethics Platform organized a panel on hate speech and the role played by the media in Dink's death last weekend, chaired by our colleague Yonca Poyraz Doğan. Journalist Kemal Göktaş, who has written a book on the issue, reminded the audience that the free-for-all against Dink in the media had started after the General Staff condemned Dink for an article suggesting that Atatürk's adopted daughter, Sabiha Gökçen, was Armenian.

The (relatively) good news is that Dink's murder seriously shook Turkey, and mainstream media outlets publish fewer openly biased headlines. But if discrimination has become more discreet and the most egregious headlines are to be limited to a few nationalist newspapers, prejudice has not disappeared and media members still tend to take their cues from officialdom, as they promote a nationalist ideology that sees Sunni Turks as the "real" citizens of this country.

In fact, the Media Watch on Hate Speech Project set up by the Hrant Dink Foundation, which monitors the national and local press for news and statements targeting specific groups, noticed an increase in prejudiced and provocative statements in the media in the first half of 2012. According to the latest report they published, for the May-August 2012 period, non-Muslims -- Armenians, Christians, Jews, Greeks -- were the main targets, but Kurds, women and homosexuals were also subjected to insults, distorted reports or demeaning statements in parts of the media.

No country is free of discrimination. As we all know, Muslims in Western societies are often at the receiving end of preconceived opinions in Western societies. In Turkey, biased or provocative headlines tend to ebb and flow in line with the political agenda, peaking during times of crises. The politicians' attitude, the language they use and how they respond to situations that have the potential to reinforce erroneous perceptions and divide society are therefore crucial.

Raising awareness of hate speech and monitoring the media is important, but ultimately politicians have to take the lead if Turkey is to become a genuinely inclusive society in which all citizens, irrespective of their origins, are equal in reality as well as on paper. Let's hope that the authorities are taking a close interest in the Samatya attacks and a thorough investigation will swiftly lead to the perpetrators' arrest.

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