“Freedom of the press is the mortar that binds together the bricks of democracy”
– Shashi Tharoor, UN Diplomat and Rights Advocate
On Friday, the 31st of May, crowds gathered in the historic Taksim Square, in Istanbul, Turkey, to protest peacefully against plans to construct a commercial centre in Gezi Park, one of the few remaining green areas in the bustling metropolitan city. However, the protests quickly expanded to the other major cities of Turkey, including the capital, Ankara, as well as Bodrum and Izmir. The protests now stem beyond opposition to the building plans and are indicative of the widespread dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Through this, much can be gleaned about the state of Turkish democracy. What is most striking, however, is what it tells us about Turkey’s press freedom.
Whilst the protests have received close attention from international media, there was a relative lack of mainstream media coverage of the drama in central Istanbul coming from Turkish news outlets themselves. Many observers were quick to conclude that Erdogan’s government was relying on the main television stations to impose a blackout on the more uncomfortable scenes of the protests- such, as perhaps, the rather brutal suppression of the protesters with tear gas, the arresting of at least 60 people and injuring of about 1,000. It should be noted that this is not the first time such methods have been employed by the Turkish government; tear-gas was also used to break up a peaceful pro-secularist march in Istanbul last October.
Erdogan’s ten years in power have been constituted a controversial decade. Some of his most unpopular proposals have included a curbing of abortion rights, curbs on alcohol, his policy regarding the Syrian civil war and, most pertinent here, his curbs on press freedom. Since Erdogan was voted in, Turkey has gained a dangerous reputation as the “world’s biggest prison” for media. Seventy journalists are currently known to be serving prison sentences, and as of 2012, Turkey ranks at number 148 in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index– a few spots below Russia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and just a few spaces above Iraq. Erdogan has faced fierce internal and external opposition, and it seems that what was at first a dispute between local authorities and environmentalists has given impetus to a much larger, and potentially far more significant, movement.
Whether Turkey will be experiencing a revolution to the same extent as that which is observed in neighbouring countries, such as Syria, is highly doubtable. Whether change is even afoot at all can also be brought into question. But the nature of the protests- their size, their escalation, their coverage- tells us an awful lot about how modern democracy is shaped. The masterminds of the protests, the “Young Turks”, if you will, were able to publicize and gain so much support for their cause within such a small space of time thanks to- as was the case in the Arab Spring- their use of modern technologies. For several hours, the twitter hashtag #OccupyGezi was a top trending title, and the use of other social media is what allowed the protests to spread so quickly to other parts of the country. This is in spite of the fact that many websites, including YouTube and Facebook, have been censored by the Turkish government.
Furthermore, despite the limitations placed on press freedom in Turkey, the events have been well-covered and well-analysed by external sources. What we can conclude from all this, therefore, is that the days where governments exercised complete control over the flow of information to and from their states are long behind us. We saw this in the early days of the Arab Spring, and we see it happening right now in a square in Istanbul.