As epic clashes between antigovernment protesters and riot police turned downtown Istanbul into a battle zone last weekend, the country’s two main news channels had, well, not much to report. One ran a documentary on penguins. The other, a cooking show. To many Turks, their silence was symptomatic of the self-censorship Turkey’s media have practiced under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tightfisted 10-year rule. Penguin T-shirts, penguin jokes and penguin costumes now abound — the bird has become a symbol of protesters’ frustration with the mainstream media.
“Our audience feels like they were betrayed,” said NTV chief executive Cem Aydin on Tuesday after a meeting with staff, some of whom resigned in protest at the lack of coverage. Criticism of the channel was “fair to a large extent,” he said. Protests are now in their 10th day. They initially began over plans to raze a park in central Istanbul but soon turned into a mass outpouring of anger against the government and have spread to more than 60 cities in Turkey. Curbs on press freedom rank high among demonstrators’ grievances, alongside concern over the government’s authoritarian manner and Islamist-influenced agenda.
Critics say Erdogan’s government has sought to control the media by levying heavy tax fines and seizing the assets of media firms perceived to be critical of his administration. Many large media companies also own businesses in fields like energy, banking and mining. Though the government denied any political motivation in those cases, the end result has been a deferential approach on the part of mainstream news outlets to government policies. Controversial journalists were quietly asked to leave. News items were whitewashed. Meanwhile, Erdogan often sued cartoonists and journalists who criticized him.
According to an online poll by Istanbul’s Bilgi University this week, 84% of demonstrators in Istanbul cited lack of media coverage among reasons for joining the protests, compared with 56% who cited the destruction of the park.
On Sunday, for example, after tens of thousands of people flooded into Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the front page of Sabah, a top-selling newspaper, lauded Erdogan for his antismoking campaign. Sabah is owned by Calik Holding, a group whose chief executive, Berat Albayrak, is Erdogan’s son-in-law. Two state banks helped finance its 2008 purchase.
Fallout from the protests has hurt some media companies and their affiliates. Garanti Bank, a sister company of the NTV news station, owned by the Dogus conglomerate, said 35 million to 40 million lira ($18.6 million to $21.2 million) in funds were withdrawn in the past week, while about 1,500 credit cards were canceled. Meanwhile, protesters have called on CNN International to withdraw its franchising agreement with CNN Turk, the Turkish channel that ran the penguin documentary.
But while mainstream media fell short, social media have thrived. Like at Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Turkey’s protests are largely coordinated using Twitter and Facebook, where Turks constitute the world’s fourth largest community. “Social media is hugely important to what we do,” says one of the first activists to camp out in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. “It’s how we spread information.” From a tent in the middle of the park, faced with police tear-gassing at night, the group used Twitter to spread the word and rally thousands.
The level of interaction on social media has been “phenomenal,” according to a study by New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation Lab published on June 1. More than 3,000 tweets per minute were sent about the protests after midnight on May 31, it said.
“Dissatisfied with the mainstream media’s coverage of the event, which has been almost nonexistent within Turkey, Turkish protesters have begun live-tweeting the protests,” study authors Pablo Barbera and Megan Metzger wrote. Protesters encouraged Turks to turn off their televisions in protest over the lack of coverage of the mainstream media by promoting the hashtag #BugünTelevizyonlarıKapat (literally, “turn off the TVs today”).
“What is unique about this particular case is how Twitter is being used to spread information about the demonstrations from the ground,” the study said. Around 90% of all geo-located tweets came from within Turkey. In comparison, only an estimated 30% of those tweeting about Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution were in the country.
Using Twitter, three young Turks in New York over the weekend launched a campaign on the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo to raise awareness of the protests that became one of the site’s fastest-ever political campaigns. Their bid to raise enough money for a full-page ad in the New York Times received donations from 50 countries at a rate of over $2,500 per hour in its first day, crossing its $53,800 goal in about 21 hours.
The government, in turn, has attacked social media for misleading the public, with Erdogan calling it a “menace.” Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said in a speech yesterday that the government “could have shut down Internet access, but we didn’t.” In Gezi Park, hand-drawn banners and info sheets list tips on what to do if Internet access does get cut off. They range from old-school international dial-up numbers for modems that can be used, to VPN programs. Could it come to that? On Thursday, the popularly elected Erdogan showed no sign of seeking rapprochement with protesters, whom he has referred to as “a handful of marauders.” The park-redevelopment scheme would continue as planned, he told reporters at the end of a four-day trip to Africa. He also warned that “terrorist groups” were involved in the protests. Even as Turkey’s war over information continues, the battle could soon turn back to the streets.
WATCH: Protest in Turkey