Media silence provokes backlash, criticism
Protesters turn to social media after mainstream news media outlets in Turkey fail to cover events in Gezi Park and Taksim Square.
By Erisa Dautaj Senerdem for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 11/06/13
When major Turkish media outlets remained silent in the first days of protests in Gezi Park, opting instead to run nature documentaries, cooking programmes and the children's movie "Shrek," critics said they failed to fulfil their primary role.
A man in a gas mask uses Twitter, the main communication method during the protests in Istanbul. [Gabriel Petrescu/SES Turkiye]
People take pictures of a damaged municipality van (left) and live broadcasting vehicles (right) which protesters attacked after the police withdrew from Taksim Square on June 2nd. [Erisa Dautaj Senderdem/SES Turkiye]
Passers-by look at non-functioning live-broadcasting vehicles at Taksim Square on June 4th. Demonstrators attacked live-broadcasting vans and journalists in protest of lack of coverage of the initial Gezi Park protests. [Erisa Dautaj Senerdem/SES Turkiye]
"I was shocked by media's silence on the protests ... Nobody could understand what was happening, apart from the people in the streets," Sebahattin Mutlu, a 56-year-old retiree in Istanbul told SES Türkiye. "I became very nervous, as my children and relatives were also in the streets."
The media's slow response to the protests brought scathing criticism as violent clashes between police and protesters raged in the first days. More than anything it drew further attention to the debate over restrictions on media freedom and the government's influence over the press.
"I felt ashamed by media's indifference because I realised all media is unfortunately concentrated in the hands of our government. They did not produce real news, but rather showed actions that would prove our resistance wrong," Esra Çamlı, 23, a student of journalism living in Istanbul, told SES Türkiye.
Aside from smaller television channels like Halk TV and Ulusal TV that broadcasted events live, the medium of instant communication to spread information was social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.
As CNN Turk, for instance, was mocked for broadcasting a penguin documentary information about the protests dominated Twitter, where live reporting from protesters and journalists provided play-by-play action. At times, more than 3,000 tweets related to the protests were posted every minute.
By contrast, the media was much quicker to broadcast on June 11th when police moved in on Taksim Square to remove flags, banners and barricades in advance of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan planned visit.
In the early days of the protests, Erdogan criticised the few media outlets covering the Gezi Park protests for "making extremely dangerous broadcasting" and causing incitement. He also pointed at slander and wrong information circulating in social media networks and, in his speeches on the protests, called Twitter a "troublemaker."
Censorship and auto-censorship are not new. The prime minister has not been shy in his relations with media bosses, including pushing for the firing of prominent columnists like Amberin Zaman, Hasan Cemal and Nuray Mert.
Incilay Cangoz, a professor of communication and media at Anadolu University in Eskisehir, said the reason for the Turkish media's silence in the first days of protests also resulted from the government's treatment of journalists.
"During AK Party's rule, the media has been economically, politically and legally oppressed as never before," Cangoz told SES Türkiye, also referring to previous reports by TESEV and BIANET – two NGOs – on freedom of expression. Many journalists have been fired, and they get much harsher punishment for their writings on terrorism and violent actions allegations, she added.
Media organisations' ownership by powerful holding companies close to and dependent on the government has in turn further reinforced the monopoly of the state over media, Cangoz added. This is why it would be naive to pretend pro-government and mainstream media would stand up for civil rights, she said.
However, Deniz Ergurel, secretary general of Istanbul-based Media Association, interprets the media's lateness in covering the protests as a result of a "reflex it has developed recently."
"The majority of media has particularly in recent months been very careful to broadcast issues such as social conflicts, terror, bombings, etc., that could cause indignation in different segments of the society," Ergurel told SES Türkiye, pointing to the recent peace process the Turkish government has launched with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
"I guess the national media bodies could not fully understand the reasons and content of the protests as the events erupted in the first place, which is why they behaved slowly in transmitting the events," Ergurel added.
Mainstream Turkish broadcasters started transmitting live once the police withdrew from Taksim Square on June 2nd. Some journalists were even attacked by protesters upset by the media's lacking coverage up to that point. Thousands of people gathered in front of buildings of various television channels in Istanbul, protesting coverage of the Gezi Park protests.
Embarrassed by the public's reaction, the media started covering the protests at the beginning of last week, and many media institutions have entered a process of self-criticism.
"I am sure everyone will take lessons from what happened," Ergurel said.
What do you think about the media's initial lack of coverage of the protests? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.