2012-12-12

Online petitions become new force behind activism

Online signature campaigns are empowering citizens at the national and global level.

By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 12/12/12

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At the national and global level, online petitions are transforming citizen activism by bringing diverse segments of society around common causes.

  • Online petitions and public protests led the government to revise a bill that would take stray animals off the streets. [Menekse Tokyay/SES Türkiye]

    Online petitions and public protests led the government to revise a bill that would take stray animals off the streets. [Menekse Tokyay/SES Türkiye]

Digital activism is a relatively new but growing trend that has the potential to strengthen democratic processes and government and corporate accountability to citizens' concerns, observers said.

Digital activism can peacefully facilitate action and co-ordination by bringing like-minded individuals together to raise their voices and shape public opinion.

Uygar Ozesmi, the Turkey director of change.org, a global online petition platform, said that online activism has created a "mental shift" by empowering citizens with new tools to shape the world they want to live in.

With 210,000 users in Turkey and 25 million throughout the world, online petition platforms like change.org connect activists and regular citizens at both the national and global level, enabling anyone with a cause in mind to post a petition to reach thousands of people with similar concerns.

"With online petitions, you can start advocacy for a cause in about three minutes and share it on other social media platforms. With such convenience and speed, authorities recognise they can't impose whatever they want on citizens, which pushes them to co-operate or at least lend an ear to the signatories," Ozesmi told SES Türkiye.

Although not all petitions reach their goal, many do.

One by Occupy for Animals, in co-operation with the Animal Rights Party, an animal rights group, led to public protests and an open letter to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Council of Europe.

The activists called on the Turkish parliament to stop a bill that would have rounded up stray street animals and placed them in so-called "natural life parks" where many feared they would die. The petition and public protests led the Turkish parliament to revise the law in line with public concerns.

Other online petitions seek to protect and return Turkey's cultural and historical treasures.

A digital signature campaign to return the Halicarnassus Mausoleum -- one of the Seven Wonders of the World taken from Turkey to the British Museum during the late Ottoman era -- has received nearly 120,000 signatures in less than a month.

The signatures will be submitted to the European Court of Human Rights, which will review the case in January.

Remzi Kazmaz, a lawyer and creator of the petition, said digital activism can attract local and international attention to the historical artifacts from Turkey that are in foreign countries.

"We intend to contribute to all the efforts being made in order to regain our cultural assets, because all our digital signatory activists know very well that people who don’t know their past cannot build their future," Kazmaz told SES Türkiye.

Last month, another digital platform, Yesilist.com, started an online petition that reached 46,000 people calling for the end of a planned commercial project in the Maslak district of Istanbul, after claims that one of the biggest forests of the city would be destroyed.

The petition produced enough pressure on the Ministry of Forest and Water Affairs that it terminated the agreement with the contractor and launched an investigation.

Online petitions and activism also provide an avenue to keep corporations accountable and aware of consumers' concerns.

After calls from the Socialist Feminist Collective, an online women's rights advocacy group, Turkcell cancelled a recent text-based service, the On-the-Road Tracking System, which enabled users to detect others' geographical co-ordinates.

A number of activists warned the company that the service could increase violence against women from men wanting to track their daily activities. Turkcell promised to relaunch the service after consultation with women's rights organisations.

However, not all such digital activism leads to results. The Taksim Platform started a petition campaign last year to stop a controversial municipal project to change Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul.

The platform contended residents of the city were not informed or consulted on the tax-payer funded project.

The petition was followed by others on different platforms like Change.org. However, the urban transformation of Taksim Square kicked off in November.

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