Lessons from last weekend: Press chill

Thursday, June 6

One of the most chilling aspects of the events last weekend concerned press coverage. While battles were raging between protesters and police in Beşiktaş and Taksim, foreign news agencies and internet sources like FB were the only access that people in Turkey had to information. The television channels and newspapers in Turkey barely discussed these events. CNN-Turk, NTV, and other major news stations in Turkey have very, very little credibility these days in Turkey.

 CNN-Turk aired a documentary about penguins during the protests

That's really one of the biggest differences that I see between Turkey under Erdogan and the Turkey I remember from the 1990s. Back then, there were definitely taboos that were not breached by the mainstream media--issues pertaining to Kurds, Armenians, Ataturk and the military had to be treated in a certain way. Moreover, the 1990s Turkish media, while often brave, was hardly something that we should idealize, for lots of other reasons that I won't go into now.

Nevertheless, I don't remember ever getting the sense that the media was afraid of taking on an active politician. Political figures from the like Tansu Çiller and Süleyman Demirel were regularly lampooned in cartoons and at times even excoriated in the press. 

The silence that met this last weekend's events really brought home to me the degree to which the media in Turkey have been cowed over the past decade, a development which continues to this day with the arrest of Twitter users in recent days. By no means did the AKP invent censorship or media intimidation--just ask the journalists who got jailed in the 90s for writing about Kurdish issues, for example--but stifling criticism of a sitting Prime Minister is not something I'd seen before, at least to this degree. I've written about these issues at various times over the years (such as here, and here, and here).

In some ways, the taboos from the 1990s have been lifted. Certain brave people have made an effort to push the boundaries of discussion regarding a lot of matters that the pre-AKP order considered inconvenient (and therefore criminal) to discuss honestly. For this reason, in part, Erdogan has earned the occasional pat on the head from journalists and academics in the United States and elsewhere for bringing more freedom to Turkey.

Well. It is a good thing that the taboos appear to be breaking down, and a lot of credit needs to be given to folks with the ovarial fortitude to speak truth to power, often in the case of fierce opposition, which presumably included at least some of the people currently occupying Gezi Park. Today's advocates of free speech were, in some cases, yesterday's thought police who condemned anyone who said anything different about the old taboos.

But if you can't talk openly about events that are happening in the present, breaking taboos about discussion concerning events from the past really doesn't do you all that much good, because it becomes clear that the breaking of taboos has not arisen from a commitment to free speech, but from a desire to give others free reign to slur the policies of your predecessors and political opponents.
More links, commentary and photographs can be found at the Borderlands Lounge 

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