Gezi-Park: the media has lost all its credibility

A conversation with Esra Arsan, Professor at Istanbul Bilgi University

«Twitter has become a problem for our Prime Minister,» says Esra Arsan, professor of journalism at Istanbul’s Bilgi University and media critic «according to a research conducted at New York University (NYU), from 4 pm until midnight of Friday May 31st there were about 2 million tweets concerning the protest. Crowdsourcing was key for the uprising».

What is the nature of the #OccupyGezi movement?

This movement is absolutely spontaneous, which means that it is not connected with any marginal group, contrary to what our Prime Minister has tried to make us believe. It started simply as an environmental and pacifist protest to protect Gezi Park. However, the police’s and the security forces’ brutal reaction have triggered a huge uprising that slowly turned into an heterogeneous movement. The protesters are asking to renegotiate and to extend the meager spaces of democracy offered by the AKP government over the last ten years. It should be noted that this is a government exerting pressure and strict control on society and on people’s private life. The role of women, the number of children, alcohol consumption and even the dress code: this government has an autocratic and totalitarian attitude over all these elements. However, for the first time in ten years, this government has been openly criticized by the public. In my opinion it may be possible that this would never have happened without the overreaction of police forces against civilians and against peaceful demonstrators. The problem is that Erdoğan is “out of control”; in the last few years he has dramatically increased the distance between himself and its people and therefore he is not accustomed to listen to citizens’ requests and demands. He brutally repressed a peaceful protest but could not have imagined this kind of reaction.

Civil society, however, seemed to be ready for such a reaction. Protesters (students, journalists, Kurdish militants) already existed even though the protests were isolated. The Gezi Park issue sparked a huge uprising

That is correct. We all know that Tayyip Erdoğan, has a strong religious profile and a conservative background. Had this characteristic been confined to his private life there would have been no problem at all, but when you want to impose your way of life and your models on society, then it becomes an issue. The AKP’s slogan has always been: «We are a liberal and conservative party». In their political program there was no intention of using policy to make an operation of “social engineering” to transform citizens into a mass of religious people. However, since 2007, AKP’s deputies, sympathizers and Erdoğan himself have started to pay more attention to people’s lifestyle, to their attitudes and behaviors. Suddenly, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the independence of social research were targeted. Today, for example, we have a gradual privatization of universities, and a series of decrees limiting the academic activities related to social research. The atmosphere is extremely tense at all levels and people are sick of this dirigisme in government policies.

Erdoğan, however, seems to have been deaf to protesters’ demands

The initial protest at Gezi Parki was absolutely peaceful and animated by a fairly small group. The government’s reaction, however, was so violent that no one could negate the disproportional nature of its reaction. But that is not the point. Tayyip Erdoğan has always been very clever in using the media and in general he has excellent communication skills. However, this time, in my opinion, he has proven incapable. A good government, a smart PM, would have taken advantage of the situation. If people take to the streets the best approach is to talk to them, to listen to them, to understand what they want. Only that way it is possible to calm things down and control the situation. But what he did is the exact opposite. Erdoğan considers his voters as soldiers who obey without thinking, an army sitting at home and waiting for the next election to give him, once again, their vote. The amazing thing is that so many people who claim to have voted for him are now saying: “What the hell are you doing Tayyip? This is pure madness”.

What do you think about the black out of mainstream media?
This is a turning point for the credibility of Turkish media. the major national media have completely overshadowed the police’s repression and deliberately ignored what was happening in the streets. They did not cover the news, they did not broadcast images or videos. I’ve been saying this for years: the Turkish mainstream media is not doing its job, they don’t tell the truth, they distort facts and manipulate reality – and yet people continue to trust them. But after what happened in the center of Istanbul, the cultural capital of Turkey, the magnitude of their lies became clear. The media did not provide any information for 48 hours! It’s a shame. They want us to believe that all these people protesting are marginalized groups or terrorists, instead, they are ordinary people, they are students who are trying to defend their ideals and their lives. But now everyone saw that the national media have first obscured and then manipulated the facts. That is why these protests represent a point of no return for the media in Turkey. I have seen journalists resigning from NTV (National Turkish Television), I have seen them making statements against their bosses. This is a form of revolution, something that would have been unthinkable in the past. I hope at least that what happened will be an opportunity to re-examine the accountability and credibility of the big national media and that it will encourage the Turkish people to become more aware, to turn off the television and to avoid certain newspapers which misrepresent reality.

An uninterrupted flow of information is coming from social networks. Twitter and other social media have actually filled the void

Twitter has become a problem for our prime minister. Given that the mainstream media have not guaranteed any coverage of current events, thanks to Twitter people were able to realize what was happening. If you compare this to the Egyptian up rise against Mubarak where, according to a U.S. study, only 30% of the tweets came from the same country, in Turkey, during the first few hours of the protest, 90% of the tweets were geo-localized within the country. Most of the tweets openly condemned the mainstream media and their inexplicable silence. I have read dozens of tweets accusing national media: «Where are you? Shame on you». A New York University research on Turkish Twitter activity, on Friday 31st from 4 pm until midnight counted about 2 million tweets with the hashtag of the protest (#Occupygezi #Direngeziparki etc). After midnight the average number of tweets concerning the events was around 3,000 tweets every minute! It’s simply amazing. Erdoğan, who has 2.8 million followers (and 0 following), said absolutely nothing on Twitter. Again, this is incredible. Had he used Twitter effectively, replying to people, speaking the truth on the events, had he communicated something to its people perhaps things might have taken a different turn. His “media advisors”, who are specialists and professionals, screwed up. The key element behind the protest was “crowdsourcing”. The impact of social media in general, with its uninterrupted flow of photos and videos, was decisive.