Lara Sarlak, MA Anthropology and Media
The results of the previous Turkish general elections in June 2015 had many people carried away by the illusion of possible change. A pro-minority party, the HDP, had managed to pass the arbitrary electoral threshold and Erdoğan’s AKP had finally had its majority displaced. Yet over the past few months, Erdoğan has been extremely consistent in frightening the peoples of Turkey: we were discouraged from the possibility of change each day after the elections.
The Diyarbakır bombings at a HDP rally one day before the June elections killed 4 supporters and injured hundreds more, acting as a fierce warning of the waves of violence to come. In the following month, 32 youth activists in Suruç became the victims of a suicide bomb while they were on their way to help the children of Kobane. After confronting defeat, the AKP continued this brutality by storming Kurdish towns and launching numerous military operations, including shellings and sieges, leading to the deaths of numerous Kurdish civilians. The Ankara massacre is yet another story.
Dragged along by the tragedies happening after the June elections, many of us were convinced that people wouldn’t change their minds in just a couple of months. We were convinced the AKP could not regain its majority, but the results of November were a complete surprise. While the HDP lost a million of its votes, the ultra nationalist MHP faced a significant defeat, giving its third place in the parliament to HDP.
Polling companies were also among the losers of the early elections in November. They succeeded in making people believe that it would be a repetition of June, but they were also nonplussed by the results.
Normalizing the high frequency and intensity of the government’s acts of violence for more than a decade, we were socially ‘trained’ to tolerate these incidents, and sometimes even ‘expect’ them. Nothing could be ‘surprising’ anymore – so what was it about the recent November elections that left many Turkish people surprised? How could they all fall into this delusional trap?
Although I’m not sure how much of the polling companies were already ‘sold’ to AKP partisans, it is quite certain that the majority of our media was in the hands of the AKP prior to the elections. In Turkish, we have a unique name for it: ‘pool media’.
As might be expected, the Turkish state worked hand in hand with the media in this turbulent period. Besides making us all believe that similar results were to come up, the media were very impressive in concealing the massacres and catastrophes brought on by the state.
After the Paris attacks, France chose to shut down its border. After the Ankara massacre, the Turkish government chose to shut down its media. Just after the incident, the court issued a total media ban over the coverage of the Ankara massacre, in addition to a restriction to the investigation of the bombings. Our access to information about the deadliest attack in modern Turkish history was tightened, inevitably resulted with a decline in the public reactions and analysis of the incident. How can people respond to something that they have no information of? Many people start to lose interest on the issue, and return to their normal lives. Those who are righteously afraid do not even utter a word.
Freedom of speech is not a matter of discussion in an environment where quoting the exact words of the president can bring serious trouble. The offices of one of the major Turkish newspapers Hürriyet (which ironically translates into ‘liberty’) were literally stoned in early September with an accusation of misquoting Erdoğan’s explanation, ‘this would not have happened if 00 deputies had been given.’ An AKP deputy led the attacks without difficulty. This was an unfaltering attack on the media and a severe warning to those who were willing to criticize the government.
After the November elections, Demirtas clearly stated that HDP was not allowed to conduct its election campaign. As the party spent most of its time to protect its members from assault and to recover from the massacres that took the lives of many, it should come as no surprise that the HDP campaign had a small platform in Turkish media.
If we take a look at the number if special guests invited to speak on the national public broadcaster, TRT, we act as observers of a celebration of the AKP. In October TRT hosted 37 guests from AKP and gave 25 hours of coverage to them. On the other hand, the opposition parties CHP, MHP and HDP were not given a single invitation from the channel which is funded by our electric bills.
Turkey witnessed a similar trend during the presidential elections in August 2014. The coverage of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan by TRT amounted to 559 minutes, while the opposition candidates Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu and Selahattin Demirtaş were allowed only 137 and 19 minutes respectively. When TRT was harshly criticized for this blatant bias, the head of RTÜK’s (Radio and TV Supreme Council) response was ‘can a prime minister ever be equivalent to other candidates?’ From this we can discern that Turkish citizens absolutely deserve a show of gratitude from the party whose election campaign they have indirectly funded.
The Turkish audience has never been given a chance to choose a party through reasoned evaluation. We are exposed to a polarized mainstream media, mostly favoring the ruling party, and during the election period we can only hear certain parties’ voices. There isn’t a chance to come upon a heated debate between Turkish political leaders arguing over their opinions in an open session on television. Instead, we hear them raging against each other in their ultimate comfort zones – rallies. It’s no surprise that this society has become extremely polarized in recent years. How are we supposed to unite while our politicians can’t even sit side by side on a television program?
Turkey has transformed into one of the world’s largest prisons for media. This year it ranks among the top countries for the most Facebook censorship at government request. Reporters Without Borders declared Turkey as 149th out of 180 countries for press freedom – and it seems like there is no hope for the arrested journalists. We have come to a point where we learned that Twitter was banned in Turkey on Twitter itself. Banning the press from covering horrible incidents like the Ankara massacre is not a tool to lessen the horror, instead it only rubs salt in our wounds.
Our media is a successful enterprise in that it has distracted the general public, normalized violence, made enemies out of ‘othered’ populations and lionized Erdoğan and the government. What’s good to this overregulated, censored and ‘slanted’ media is no good for the people.
It is very likely that press freedom will remain as an area of serious concern for another 4 years. Social media, in this sense, may appear like a blessing in disguise for us to be informed about what’s going on, but it is equally responsible for diverting our actions. We feel very progressive in the 140 characters we have in Twitter, yet we have become passive.
Unfortunately, it takes more than a tweet, a black profile picture or a shared post to resist the pressures upon us by the state and we should never underestimate the power of such ‘actions’ in normalizing the situation. We must try to be alert as much as possible, attempt to avoid assimilating pain and manipulation as part of our normal life, and to acknowledge that the chance of a ‘next time’ could be disappointing – but most of all we must not let feelings of disappointment and surprise override solidarity and resistance.