ISTANBUL – The anti-government demonstrations that started as a peaceful protest against the demolition of a park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, went on to involve over 2.5 million protesters across 79 out of Turkey’s 81 provinces, according to the Interior Ministry.
The protests have been winding down since riot police retook Gezi Park in a June 15 raid, which was followed by mass arrests.
The park remains closed to the public; the demonstrations continue sporadically in other places, most notably in Ankara. Many have since adopted the use of passive resistance stunts, such as the popular “standing man” protest, in which individual demonstrators stand motionless in random locations and stare at the national flag or a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic.
Four people have died and 8,041 have received treatment for injuries since the start of the protests on May 28; of the injured, 11 lost eyes and 60 are in serious condition, according an update by the Turkish Medical Association on Thursday.
As calm returns to the streets, the government’s focus has shifted to identifying the initiators of the protests. According to the Turkish daily Radikal
, more than 5,000 people have been detained in connection to the demonstrations, with 85 of them awaiting trial.
Government officials have accused a number of artists, journalists and members of the business community of being part of a conspiracy to topple the government.
During his recent Respect for the National Will rallies, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has singled out renowned film and theater actor Mehmet Ali Alabora for his May 30 tweet as showing the intention to use the protests as pretext for a “civil coup.” The tweet translates: “The issue is not just Gezi Park, my friend, you still don’t get it. Come join!” On Saturday, 100 Turkish intellectuals, including several famous artists, bought a full-page ad in Turkish daily Hurriyet. In their ad titled “We Are Concerned,” the group said, “There is a smell of anger and hate in the air yet again. Attempts to derogate, target, defame, accuse and oppress arts and artists continue persistently. The reckless mouth that says ‘The feet shall not rule the head’ is sowing the seeds of hate among society,” quoting Erdogan’s remark from this past Tuesday.
Speaking before members of his AK Party, Erdogan alleged that the protests are organized by the same group that organized recent riots in Brazil. “There are many similarities between what is going on in Brazil and here,” he said. “The button that was pushed to activate the riots in both countries was pushed from the same center.”
Erdogan singled out the BBC’s Turkish correspondent Selin Girit for a 2.5-minute news report on June 14, in which she criticized mainstream Turkish media for collaborating with government censors. The report itself was censored, kept off the air, by the BBC’s Turkish affiliate NTV, prompting the BBC to suspend its partnership with NTV on the same night.
Girit then became a target for Ibrahim Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Ankara from the ruling AK Party. On Twitter, he asked his 750,000+ followers to tweet “Don’t work as a British agent, Selin Girit,” which quickly made the top of the worldwide trending topics list.
The BBC Press Office responded by saying “The BBC is very concerned by the continued campaign of the Turkish authorities to discredit the BBC and intimidate its journalists.”
The mayor dismissed the criticism and launched another Twitter campaign titled “Stop Lying CNN,” accusing the news corporation of biased reporting on the protests. Gokcek also wrote that he instructed his lawyers to sue all Turkish Twitter users who use the hashtag “Provocateur Gokcek” to protest his campaigns.
On Saturday, the editor-inchief of the conservative Takvim newspaper announced that it has petitioned the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office to press charges against CNN International and journalist Christiane Amanpour “for intentionally spreading false news against Turkey.”
Turkey has the most journalists in prison of any country in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders.
In a June 17 statement, Reporters Without Borders said it “strongly condemns the continuing arbitrary arrests and escalating violence against journalists covering anti-government demonstrations in Turkey....It is unacceptable for journalists to be deliberately targeted, prevented from working and beaten by the police officers who are supposed to protect them.”
In a follow-up statement on June 19, the organization alleged that “raids on journalists’ homes and news media violate the principle of the protection of sources, the cornerstone of media freedom.... Inciting violence and hatred must of course be punished, but the government’s current rhetoric suggests that this need is being used as a pretext for political revenge against outspoken journalists.”
On June 12, the Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council levied fines on four local news channels for their live broadcast of the protests, citing “harm of the physical, mental and moral development of children and teenagers.”
Online social media have also come under fire from the Turkish authorities due to their central role as an unrestricted communication platform to organize the protests.
According to a study by New York University, more than 2 million tweets with Gezi Park hashtags were sent within just eight hours on May 31, with 90 percent of the tweets originating in Turkey.
By comparison, Egypt’s main protest hashtags during the Tahrir Square protests were used fewer than 1 million times in all of the 17 days of protests combined.
At the onset of the Turkish protests, Erdogan described Twitter as a “menace to society.” Several dozen Turkish users of Twitter have been detained since then for inciting the riots.
Interior Minister Muammer Guler recently announced that the ruling party will soon introduce a bill to regulate the social media more effectively, giving way to speculation in the local media that the government will require Twitter to set up an office in Turkey to prevent it from being banned.
In the immediate aftermath of the protests, the mood among several members of the arts and the media communities is one of nervousness, with many who have commented on the events publicly fearing retribution.
Yet, some are defiant.
Andrew Finkel, a British journalist and a longtime Istanbul resident, commented, “The state at large has turned a marginal march into a mass movement. For the government now to turn a shocking blunder into a witch hunt would only do more damage.”
Igal Aciman is a business development executive and a freelance journalist. His blog can viewed at www.igalaciman.com