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June 25, 2013, Tuesday

Gezi and freedom of press

When you encounter unprecedented social events, like the Gezi Park resistance in Turkey, it would be utterly wrong to try to explain them with a few simple factors. For the Gezi incidents, there were many different factors, varying from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's paternalistic role that he tries to exert over society to the lack of a democratic opposition that has the chance to come to power in any foreseeable future.

I can add many other factors to the list of possible explanations for the anger and frustration in society that lead to the Gezi uprising. The government's majoritarian understanding of democracy, which creates the feeling of being dominated in some segments of society, police violence, harsh restrictions on public gatherings and demonstrations and others can be cited.

There is however, another factor, which is ignored in relation to possible explanations of recent unrest in Turkey, and it is the lack of a free and independent media. I think this factor not only paved the way for this uprising but also contributed to their aggravation by making people angrier and leading the way to false news spreading through social media.

Penguins turned into one of the symbols of the Gezi uprisings, just because some TV channels preferred to broadcast penguin documentaries instead of showing what had been happening in Turkey during the demonstrations and conflicts. We learned what was going on in Turkey mostly from foreign TV channels. This media reaction made people more and more angry, they were on the streets to ensure that their voices would be heard, and media had a blind eye to their actions.

Social media filled the huge vacuum left by TV channels; unfortunately, this paved the way for manipulators who spread quite provocative false news about incidents.

However, I believe the lack of media freedom not only contributed to the intensification of the events, but it was also one of the main reasons leading to them. For the last couple of years, many journalists and columnists have lost their jobs just because they criticized the government. Today, there are many newspapers and TV channels in Turkey that act like the Soviet Pravda newspaper, which was the official publication of the Communist party. I believe this media atmosphere significantly contributed to tension within society. People cannot see their concerns and their grievances voiced in mainstream media. And they witness writers who voice their concerns lose their jobs. Anyone who reads government-controlled media or the others that do anything to avoid any conflict with the government can see that there is no serious reporting and independent journalism in these media outlets at all.

I am afraid the situation is worsening every passing day. In government-controlled media there are very rare independent voices, and nowadays, they are also under attack. The most recent example is the censorship of a column by Yavuz Baydar, who is the ombudsman for the Sabah daily. I do not know if there is any similar example in the history of censorship in which a newspaper censored its own ombudsman's column. In this censored column, Baydar was criticizing Sabah for its joining in the chorus that explained every problem in Turkey via conspiracy theories. Nowadays, the government puts all the blame on the international media, and Sabah joined this campaign of finding foreign scapegoats as conspirators in the Gezi events. Sabah's chief editor not only refused to publish Baydar's column, but also published a reader letter criticizing Baydar for his criticism of the government. I really cannot find the right words for this surrealist picture of the plight of the media. As long as we have this media in Turkey, unfortunately, we are doomed to see many angry uprisings in Turkey.

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