Reporters Without Perspective – Upcoming elections in Turkey

YASTAYIZ!  screamed the front page headline in 5cm font in this morning’s newspaper – ‘We are in mourning!’ 14 year-old Berkin Elvan was admitted to hospital on 15 June last year after being struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police trying to disperse demonstrators. Yesterday, a month past his 15th birthday,  he passed away after spending 267 days in a coma. According to the family, young Berkin had been on his way to the bakery to buy bread when he became an innocent victim of excessive police violence sanctioned by Turkey’s AK Party government to silence protest against their undemocratic regime. ‘It is not God who has taken my son away. It is [Prime Minister Recep] Tayyip Erdoğan,’ said the mother, Gülsüm Elvan.
‘Turkey is weeping,’ said Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of Turkey’s main parliamentary opposition party, CHP. ‘Will the Prime Minister call the family to offer his condolences? You can be sure he will not.’ In fact, Mr Kılıçdaroğlu did not use the Turkish word for ‘Prime Minister’ (Başbakan). In a play on words, he used instead the word ‘Başçalan’, which we might translate as ‘Thief-in-Chief’, in a clear reference to corruption accusations being levelled at PM Erdoğan.
Page 5 featured a lengthy piece by a popular female columnist, from which I quote (the translation is mine):
‘What if your child was shot in the head while going to buy bread? What if a gas canister went in behind his ear and he had to pull it out by himself? And he lost a huge amount of blood? He began to vomit? If his last words were “Don’t tell my father – he’ll be so sad!” Moreover if that day was Fathers’ Day? What would you do?
‘Yesterday we woke to very sad news. Berkin had left us after we had been praying for 267 days that he would awake from his coma. And police were spraying pepper gas and firing gas cylinders at the young people who had gathered outside the hospital to farewell their friend. For God’s sake, is this possible? What are you trying to do? To put more children into a coma? How many more children will you put in a coma? Enough is enough!’
Lawyers representing the family issued a statement saying, ‘[Berkin’s] young body resisted for 267 days against the damage caused by the gas canister fired by the police, the same way our people resisted against fascism.’ The newspaper also published 19 tweets by celebrities from Turkey’s sports and entertainment world expressing their profound sorrow at Berkin’s death.
Bakery in Turkey
Political demonstration in Turkey
Well, I am sad too. It’s a tragic thing when a young life is cut short – more so when that death occurs in sudden and violent circumstances. Most of us cannot imagine the trauma experienced by a mother and father as they watch their young teenage son waste away in a coma for nine months before dying in front of their eyes. It may well be true that Berkin was, as they say, on his way to the bakery – and it is unfortunate that his way lay through the middle of a political demonstration the like of which had been ongoing in the country for more than a fortnight.
What saddens me as much as the Elvan family’s tragedy however, is the way the young lad’s death is being used to score political points in the lead-up to local body elections on 30 March. Street demonstrations in Turkey are rarely peaceful. The people in our New Zealand Embassy in Ankara send out memos from time to time to ex-pat Kiwis living here. Among their warnings they include advice to avoid such gatherings, or even places where police may be congregating such as police stations and checkpoints. The reason is not merely the risk of suffering from police violence. Turkish police have, in the recent past, been targeted by terrorist groups including suicide bombers. It is by no means unusual for Turkish men (and women for all I know) to carry concealed weapons – guns and knives. Don’t mess with an American cop, an Australian cop or a Turkish cop. They tend to be a lot more pro-active than your old-time London bobby or friendly New Zealand constable, and for good reasons. Mob violence can escalate rapidly. If you’re in the crowd and all you get is a squirt from a water cannon, you may think yourself lucky.
The columnist knows this. She also must be aware that Turkey is a very diverse society where some live in communities not far removed from tribalism; where ancient codes of honour still have a stronger hold than the law of the land; honour killings, and revenge killings are not uncommon – and blood feuds may pass down through generations. When she employed those emotive sentences quoted above, and posed the rhetorical question ‘What would you do?’ was she so naïve as to be unaware of the actions her words might provoke? When she says, ‘What are you trying to do? To put more children into a coma? How many more children will you put in a coma?’ Who is the ‘you’ she is addressing? Does anyone doubt that she is more or less directly accusing the Prime Minister of responsibility for the death of young Berkin?
The lady is, of course, entitled to her political opinions, and even if I disapprove of what she says, I will defend to the death her right to say it. Well, maybe not to the death, but you get my drift. What I find especially interesting, and what is, in fact, my main purpose in putting finger to keyboard today, is that all the above words are quoted, not from some fringe anarchist broadsheet handed out by young intellectuals on a city street at the risk of imprisonment and torture, but directly from a mainstream Turkish daily newspaper. You may find it interesting too, even surprising, given that you have perhaps seen reports in news media recently referring to an analysis by ‘Reporters Without Borders’which ranked Turkey 154th out of 179 countries according to its ‘World Press Freedom Index’. Turkey, say the borderless reporters, ‘is currently the world’s biggest prison for journalists, especially those who express views critical of the authorities on the Kurdish issue’.
No doubt these people are well-meaning souls who believe they have a role to play in building a better world. And I feel a certain patriotic pride when I see my own country New Zealand in 8th position, 24 places higher than the United States and 29 ahead of France. On the other hand, when I see the Maldives, Fiji and Kyrgyzstan ranked 50 places higher than Turkey I have some questions in my mind. Continuing down the list and finding that Turkey ranks below Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Brunei and Burma, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, even Thailand and Iraq, I have to say I find the RWB’s list beyond ridiculous. At least they place Turkey marginally ahead of Saudi Arabia (163), Iran (174), Syria (176) and North Korea (178) – small consolation.
That same newspaper is free to publish a large advertisement for the CHP opposition party in which their leader says, ‘This mentality which has been working to polarize the country for 11 years can no longer govern Turkey.’I cannot exercise a vote in elections in this country, and I have certainly no involvement in party politics – but in the interests of fair play, I have to tell you that it is the present government which has opened up discussion on ways to solves the Kurdish problem in Turkey; which has allowed Kurdish people to use their language freely, give their children Kurdish names and broadcast programmes in Kurdish on their own television channels.
Dilek and I are currently moving ourselves into rental accommodation while our apartment building is demolished and rebuilt as part of the ongoing urban renewal taking place in Istanbul. Last week we had an electrician install light fittings, and got chatting while he and his apprentice worked. It turned out that the guys were from Mardin, a city down in the south east of Turkey close to the Syrian border and not so far from Iraq. They happily admitted to being Arab, and that their native language was Arabic – they had learned Turkish after starting school. It crossed my mind that, not too long ago, such non-Turkish national pride would have been frowned upon in this country, perhaps even punishable.

If Turkey was not obviously polarised when I first arrived in the 1990s, it was because deviation from the principle of ‘Turkishness’ was actively discouraged. Take the lid off a boiling pot and steam will erupt – but it will soon settle down. Keep a sealed lid in place and you risk an explosion. Despite what some sources may tell you, there seem to me to be healthy debates taking place in at least some media in Turkey these days. Even traditional opposition parties have moderated their stance on women wearing headscarves and other formerly taboo subjects. If they would only spend more time explaining what steps they would actually take to improve people’s lives in Turkey, the majority of voters would be a good deal happier going into that election on the 30th.
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4 thoughts on “Reporters Without Perspective – Upcoming elections in Turkey

  1. Interesting to get a local objective view on censorship. Seems like Turkey's ranking needs reviewing. Or are the Gulenists becoming more powerful…

  2. There is certainly plenty going on in Turkey these days – though perhaps less excitement than in neighbouring states like Syria and Ukraine/Crimea. It's certainly true, however, that you can read or watch all about events in local media, so in that sense, I believe that Press Freedom ranking is total nonsense. For the Gulenist point-of-view, for example, check out Today's Zaman online.

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