Sport faces growing censorship problem over the Israel-Gaza war

When Turkish football team Antalyaspor faced Trabzonspor in a Super Lig match earlier this month, few could have predicted the fall-out that would follow off the pitch. Israeli winger Sagiv Jehezkel scored the equaliser for Antalyaspor in the second half, and in celebration he revealed a message written on his wristband that said: “100 days, 7-10”. The words referenced the length of time that Israeli hostages had been held by Hamas since the group launched an attack on Israel on the 7 October, killing an estimated 1,200 people.

In Turkey, the backlash was fierce. Jehezkel was arrested and detained in Antalya on the charge of “incitement to hate”. After being released, he was sacked by Antalyaspor and returned home to Israel, landing in Tel Aviv the next day.

According to local media, Jehezkel has stated that he did not mean to provoke such a storm. He said: “I am not a pro-war person. I want the war to end. That’s why I showed the sign.” Antalyaspor did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

He is not the only footballer to lose his club for voicing an opinion on the conflict. When Israel began their retaliatory bombardment of Gaza, which has so far reportedly killed more than 26,000 people, Dutch international Anwar El Ghazi posted a message of support for Palestine on his Instagram story. After a back and forth with his club – German side FSV Mainz 05 – El Ghazi made a further statement on social media announcing that he had no regrets over the now-deleted post and reiterating his argument that he stands “for humanity and the oppressed” and against “the killing of all innocent civilians in Palestine and Israel”. Mainz were unhappy with El Ghazi’s stance, calling his position on the conflict “unacceptable”. A few days later, his contract was terminated.

Upon losing his club, El Ghazi posted once more. “Stand for what is right, even if it means standing alone. The loss of my livelihood is nothing when compared to the hell being unleashed on the innocent and vulnerable in Gaza,” he said.

The player is now suing Mainz for wrongful termination of his contract, while the club is making a counter claim as they seek financial compensation to help fund his replacement. The final hearing is set to be held in June.

Mainz told Index they were unable to comment on the incident as legal proceedings are ongoing.

These two cases sum up the uncomfortable relationship sport has with politics and free speech, and how this has been exacerbated by the Israel-Gaza war. Due to the divisive nature of the conflict, sporting bodies are struggling to navigate the line between freedom of expression and the potential to incite hatred and in doing so have fallen into a worrying trend of censorship. 

The reluctance or inability of those involved to comment on the incidents may also show the difficulties people have when talking about this topic, as they can’t, or won’t, speak up due to the potential backlash and further repercussions. This is fairly unsurprising given the experiences of those who have expressed an opinion on the conflict. In another case, footballer Karim Benzema was accused of having “notorious” links to Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood by France’s Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanin. His crime? Posting a message of support for the inhabitants of Gaza on X (formerly Twitter). Benzema has filed for defamation against Darmanin; his lawyer Hugues Vigier told French news outlet RTL that the claims were “false” and accused the Interior Minister of “sowing division in France”. 

It is not just players who are facing the threat of censorship. Many of football’s national governing bodies, including England’s Premier League and EFL, have also banned supporters from displaying Palestine or Israel flags during games. As a result, there have been a number of accusations levelled at English clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United of censoring fans who display any show of support for the Palestinian cause by removing them from stadiums. 

Other sports have also been caught up in the censorship storm. Former athlete Emilie Gomis, who clinched a silver medal in basketball for France at the London 2012 Olympics, recently stepped down from her role as an ambassador for the Paris 2024 Games after posting an anti-Israel video to her Instagram story. Elsewhere, in South Africa, cricketer David Teeger was stripped of his captaincy of the country’s under-19s side after dedicating an award he won at a Jewish community event to “the state of Israel and every single soldier fighting so that we can live and thrive in the diaspora”, in a decision described as a “sinister” and “discriminatory” by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

Another cricketer, Australia’s Usman Khawaja, was charged by the International Cricket Council (ICC) for wearing a black armband during a test match against Pakistan in support of those in Gaza. ICC regulations do not allow players to display “messages of political, religious or racial causes”, and the player had previously been warned by the governing body after wearing shoes with the messages “all lives are equal” and “freedom is a human right” written on them. Khawaja argues that it is not a political statement but a “humanitarian appeal”.

Further debate over the right to free expression in regard to the conflict is inevitable with the growing calls to ban Israel from competing in sporting events. One post on X by The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel called for “pressure” to be put on sporting bodies to ban Israel from international tournaments and games “until Israel ends its grave violations of international law”. The statement was reposted by the BBC’s Gary Lineker, who later deleted it.

Despite cries to keep politics out of sport, it is not possible to separate the two. Sport does not exist in an apolitical vacuum, and is impacted even on the front lines; the Palestinian Football Association says 88 top-tier athletes have been killed by Israeli forces during their military bombardment, 67 of whom are footballers. Just this month it was reported that the coach of Palestine’s Olympic football team Hani Al-Masdar was killed in an Israeli airstrike.

The attempts by governing bodies in sport to prevent athletes and fans from expressing a view on the conflict, while not necessarily malicious, pose a serious risk to free speech. While the cases of Sagiv Jehezkel and Anwar El Ghazi are extreme, they are the product of sport’s increasingly heavy-handed approach to political censorship, which makes having an opinion on the war in Gaza increasingly difficult. For people to feel unable to wade into the issue in fear of backlash is cause for concern in itself. Despite a long history of athletes being involved in political activism, sport still hasn’t found a way to ensure free expression for all is upheld.

Failed empty gesture 0 – 1 Strong silent stand

The football commentator’s well-worn cliché about the sport being a game of two halves usually refers to the action on the pitch. But in the build-up to the game between England and Iran at the 2022 FIFA World Cup earlier this week, it was the off-field actions of the teams which showed a divided response to events in the wider world.

Shortly before kick-off, it was decided by the English FA (among other European football governing bodies) that England’s Harry Kane would forgo wearing the OneLove captain’s armband, which displays a heart containing colours representative of all backgrounds and is part of a message promoting inclusion. The reason given by the FA was that “we can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions including bookings.”

Then, just before the match, as the Iranian national anthem rang around the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, the Iranian players remained silent. Referencing the now-months long protests in Iran, which are pushing for regime change after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Tehran on 13 September 2022, Iranian captain Ehsan Hajsafi said that: “We have to accept the conditions in our country are not right. Our people are not happy. We are here but it does not mean we should not be their voice or must not respect them.”

The actions, or rather inactions, of the English FA and the Iranian footballers have had contrasting results. By aiming first but then relenting on the promise to have Kane wear the armband shows just what a failed empty gesture it was. A financial fine would have been accepted, but the fear of a single yellow card forced the FA’s hand (and that of other countries, such as Wales, Germany and the Netherlands). Were the teams and players ever really behind it if they could u-turn so quickly?

On the other hand, the silence of the Iranian footballers has shown the courage that a united action brings, not least given how much higher the risks – the repercussions the footballers may face on the return to their homeland, where they will have family and friends, are far more severe than a card brandished on the pitch.

That said we should be careful about where we lay blame in terms of not wearing the armband. It is understood that Kane still wanted to wear it, and even if he didn’t, is it fair to expect the England players to be politically active in the course of what essentially is their day job (as Julian Baggini argues in our last issue)?

The bigger fault lies squarely at the hands of FIFA for awarding the tournament to Qatar, as well as the governments and authorities around the world who have said very little about the country’s abuses since 2010. When news organisations have reported on abuses, especially on the Kafala system, which ensured an extremely cheap labour force was on hand to build the infrastructure for the World Cup, journalists were detained and threatened – again to very little public outcry. While minor changes have been made to improve the labour system, reports that at least 6,500 migrant workers still died since 2010 has again received far too little outrage.

Even during the immediate build up to, and including the tournament so far, FIFA appears happy to kowtow to Qatar’s last-minute demands. While the consumption of alcohol isn’t a free speech issue, FIFA’s agreement to Qatar’s last-minute ban on the sale of alcohol in stadiums is yet another sign that it is Qatar who are setting the rules. Also, despite assurances from FIFA, rainbow-coloured flags and attire were prohibited in spectator areas, as seen by the Welsh fans who had rainbow-coloured bucket fans confiscated before their opener against the USA. In a nation where homosexuality is still illegal these are hardly surprising actions but they show how arguments like “the World Cup will improve the rights situations in Qatar” was never a commitment taken seriously. The activist Peter Tatchell, an Index contributor who was himself detained following a protest to highlight LGBT rights in Qatar in October, puts it well: “#FIFA and #Qatar promised that LGBT+ fans & rainbow insignia would be allowed at #WorldCup. They have trashed that promise – and their reputations. But what did you expect from a sexist, homophobic & racist dictatorship?”

We at Index on Censorship love the fact that football is the world’s game, able to unite people across gender, race, religion and nationality. From Norway to Nigeria, it’s the universal language where a conversation about Manchester United or Lionel Messi can take place without knowledge of the native tongue. We have no issue with football and our Autumn issue showed its amazing power to transform lives. It’s for this reason that we remain angered that it is taking place in Qatar, who seem to be normalising their autocracy on a world stage. And it’s for this reason that we are angered that the simple threat of a yellow card has determined a retreat from taking a stand on such an important issue, even if that stand was small and largely symbolic. Iran might have lost against England on Monday but they proved to be the real winners when it came to courage and conviction.

How ‘industrial football’ was used to silence protests

Football is a colossal business in Turkey. The billion-dollar industry constitutes Europe’s sixth largest football economy. No wonder the so-called “beautiful game” wields such enormous cultural and political influence on Turks, many of whom define themselves by their loyalty to football clubs Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş.

All based in Istanbul, they’re known as “the big three”, but since the nationalist-Islamist AK Party came to power in 2002, a flurry of other teams, from Trabzonspor to Başakşehir, have risen to prominence, winning national cups and increasingly defining what modern Turkish football is. Unsurprisingly, these teams are government-supported – a prerequisite for any successful business in autocrat President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s “New Turkey”.

Just a decade ago, though, anti-government sentiment defined Turkish football. During the opening ceremony of Galatasaray’s fancy new stadium in 2011, Erdoğan greeted fans, expecting gratitude for his role in building the new venue. Instead, boos rose from the terraces.

“It’s a key moment in modern AK Party-era Turkish football,” said Patrick Keddie, who chronicled the tale of Turkish football in his 2018 book The Passion: Football and the Story of Modern Turkey.

“He expected to be welcomed and thought he would bask in fame, but ended up getting booed… It was around this time that things began to turn. There was this shift from the liberal early-era AK Party to something much more authoritarian and repressive.” Turkish football in those years, Keddie noticed, was “utterly politicised on every level”, from activists using the game’s national prominence to voice their political anger, to Erdoğan talking up his semi-professional football background for political gain. “There was this mythology of him as a former player.”

That 2011 incident, so crushing for an ex-footballer, marked the culmination point of several changes that began in 2002. Acting
out of financial self-interest, the government started knocking down stadiums in city centres and replacing them with enormous new ones, subsequently building a dozen more, in the suburbs, in association with Toki, Turkey’s public housing body.

Despite such tactics, cronies of the AK Party noticed how impenetrable the “big three” culture remained. Defending the republic’s ideals, fans of those teams largely hated the party’s oppressive project of Islamist nationalism. So the government began criminalising, imprisoning and demonising dissident fans and managers through a flurry of court cases.

First came the “match-fixing scandal”. In the summer of 2011, Erdoğan’s prosecutors began investigating football matches they
accused of being fixed. On 10 July 2012, a state court ordered the arrest of 61 people. Among the managers and national team players held was Aziz Yıldırım, the strictly secularist president of Fenerbahçe – the club Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk supported and which symbolises his modernising legacy. (A retrial process that began in 2015 cleared Fenerbahçe from all the charges; Yıldırım’s case was dropped in 2020.) Week after week, Fenerbahçe fans rushed to courts and, after sentencing, to prisons to show solidarity.

But it was the Beşiktaş fans – particularly the Çarşı group, named after the marketplace where Beşiktaş fans used to gather before matches for a drink – who played a crucial role in 2013’s Gezi uprising.

These Istanbul protests started as a movement against the development of the area, but quickly became a focal point of wider anti-government sentiment. Alongside environmentalists, leftists, liberals and other progressive millennials, Beşiktaş fans filled public squares and fought with the police.

Haldun Açıksözlü, an actor and author, wrote two books on Çarşı. “While growing up as a leftist in my youth, my passion for Beşiktaş grew, too,” he told Index. “I was part of Çarşı right from its inception.”

Rooted in the Ottoman Empire, Turkish football’s story begins with English residents of Salonica introducing the sport to Turks. The first matches were played in 1875. A football league was established in Istanbul in 1904, which soon extended into regional leagues in Anatolian cities and eventually the formation of the nationwide professional league. While Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray were known as teams of the bourgeoise and aristocracy, Beşiktaş was the team of cab drivers and the working classes.

Çarşı fans, Açıksözlü says, are famed for their cosmopolitanism and because they have a vital element of dissent. He said: “The group’s founders, from the early 1980s, were all leftists. Çarşı was a fan group that tilted football spectators toward leftist politics in the aftermath of the coup trauma of 12 September 1980. This leftist, communitarian perspective influenced me.”

But things turned when Beşiktaş’s 70-year-old stadium, İnönü (named after Atatürk’s closest ally in founding the republic), was demolished in 2013. “They made a mess of İnönü Stadium in the name of rebuilding it,” said Açıksözlü.

Erdoğan, who hates İnönü’s secularist politics, ended up excising the name of Turkey’s second president from Istanbul with this gesture.

Around this time, “the police and security forces began terrorising Beşiktaş fans”, said Açıksözlü. “Perhaps that was why Çarşı played such a prominent role in Gezi. The reaction creates reaction: the unnecessary use of tear gas by the police, their assault on Çarşı fans while they walked on streets with their families – these inevitably pushed Çarşı to the side of the sensitive people of Gezi.”

Açıksözlü describes Çarşı’s involvement in Gezi as an “incredible tale worthy of movies”. It began simply: 50 people walked from Beşiktaş to the nearby Akaretler neighbourhood. Their number grew to 100 at first and then grew to 1,000. When they walked up the hill and reached Gezi Park, the group numbered 2,500. “People heard their chants on the streets and joined in. Anyone who said they wouldn’t accept [living] under a one-man regime, wouldn’t accept state-intervention in their lives, sided with Çarşı,” he said.

Before Gezi, what Keddie – the British journalist – knew about Turkish football was clichéd: that it had crazy fans, that the big three Istanbul clubs hated each other. “I was surprised to see how prominent those fans were in the protests,” Keddie said. “They were on the forefront, fighting the police, manning the barricades.”

Still, the “big three” culture proved hard to penetrate for Keddie, who struggled with mingling with fans. “I think they’re insular and clannish and suspicious of outsiders – especially journalists.”

By the time Beşiktaş opened its new stadium on 10 April 2016, Keddie had noticed that Turkey’s political equation had changed dramatically. On the opening day, when Erdoğan sprinted and kicked a ball on the pitch, the stands were free of spectators. Even if they wanted to, nobody could boo him now.

When he visited the new stadium, Açıksözlü saw “airplane seats with special monitors attached to them”, and decided the old spirit of Çarşı was gone.

“There was this period, from 2011 to 2014, when the protest movement was quite intense,” Keddie said, “but by April 2016, most of the protests had died down or got more subtle for various reasons. Turkey didn’t have these major events, these major triggers, anymore. The biggest recent scandal of European football, the match-fixing case, 2013’s massive Gezi Park protests, and its aftermath – all of that had faded. With some exceptions, all forms of protest were essentially banned in Turkey.”

A significant factor behind the demise of Turkey’s protest culture was Passolig, an electronic ticket system the government introduced in 2014. “The electronic fan card Passolig was introduced as part of the country’s efforts to tackle hooliganism and violence in football,” announced the AK Party-run Anadolu Agency. “The new practice aims at a better identification of fans involved in violence in stadiums.”

In reality, Passolig was a cunningly conceived mechanism to detain dissident football fans. “Bringing in the Passolig card cowed many fans, and it made them think twice about protesting and even chanting because that system came with a whole load of security protocol and surveillance systems,” said Keddie.

It was much easier to identify anti-government protesters, ban them from stadiums and even charge and imprison them. “It was a response, the authorities said, to hooliganism and disorder, but most fans considered it a way to control them politically. It also gentrified the sport, making it more manageable, more middle class.”

Açıksözlü pointed to the formation of the 1453 group, a nationalist fans’ group, as another form of secret state intervention. “Specially assigned people were sent to Galatasaray’s Aslan Pençesi fan group and the Tek Yumruk group of Fenerbahçe. Their job was to stop fans looking at events from a leftist perspective.”

Anger soon melted into silence. Concern for security triumphed. Today, most fans wonder why they should risk their safety under an oppressive regime: Erdoğan sued more than 38,000 Turks for defamation between 2015 and 2021. Besides, for many devoted fans, it’s costly to go to matches at big clubs now. After Beşiktaş relocated, Çarşı had a much less prominent place in the new stadium. And outside the glossy new venues, Keddie observed, “the police are deployed in heavy numbers and they are happy to use violence whenever they need to”.

Açıksözlü said “industrial football” had destroyed the pleasures of the game. “Did you hear anything about Çarşı in the past five years? Did you read anything about other fan groups? Because of Passolig, the fan groups no longer influence Turkish football.” Still, the protest culture lives on, despite going underground. Fans can still be heard chanting about Atatürk, and when they sing the famed Izmir March, with lyrics including “Long live Atatürk! Your name will be written on a precious stone”, it’s a message directed at the Islamists.

Opposition politicians are playing ball, too. After a match between Galatasaray and the government-funded Başakşehir ended 2-0, the leader of the İYı Party, Meral Akşener, tweeted: “Galatasaray 2 -Erdoğan 0.” Many in Turkey call Başakşehir “Erdoğanspor”.

When another member of the opposition, Ekrem İmamoğlu, won Istanbul’s mayoral elections in 2019 but was refused the mandate after Erdoğan accused him of being a “terrorist”, a “liar” and a “thief”, the young politician, an ex-goalkeeper, visited football stadiums for support.

“Football is a big part of İmamoğlu’s brand,” Keddie said. “He was a goalie in his youth. So after the election was cancelled, he went to stadiums of the big three, pointedly avoiding smaller clubs, especially Başakşehir. Fans at those stadiums were chanting, ‘Give him the mandate’.” Once he was re-elected as mayor, İmamoğlu pledged to defend the interests of the big three.

Meanwhile, the “artificial success” of Başakşehir, Keddie said, may prove temporary. “I don’t see Başakşehir as really having power because they’re not an authentic, grassroots project. They don’t have many fans… It’s like a top-down project team; after all those years of investment and success in winning the league, they still get terrible attendances. It’s a cultural thing. Every other team sneers at them. Even people who support the government and support Beşiktaş or Galatasaray sneer at them.”

The AK Party may play dirty again, reject the results of next year’s presidential elections and invite their hardline supporters to
the streets to terrorise people. But then Turkey’s oppressed football fans can make a return, too, and protect Atatürk’s legacy.

“I spoke to a lot of people from Çarşı,” Keddie recalled, “and they said: ‘Yes, we’re against the government, and if something like Gezi happened again, we’d be there in a heartbeat.’”

Kaya Genç is Index’s contributing editor for Turkey. He is based in Istanbul.

This article appears in the autumn 2022 issue of Index on Censorship. To subscribe click here

Keep up focus on rights in Qatar argue Index panel ahead of World Cup

“If there is ever an opportunity to try and pretend a country is a nice country, it’s when everyone is diverted by someone kicking a football,” said Ruth Smeeth, CEO of Index on Censorship. Smeeth was introducing a panel discussion entitled “Qatar 2022: When Football and Free Speech Collide”. Hosted in collaboration with Liverpool John Moores University, the event marked the launch of the Autumn 2022 edition of the Index on Censorship magazine, which looks at the role of football in extending or crushing rights ahead of the Qatar World Cup.

Index on Censorship Editor-in-Chief Jemimah Steinfeld was joined by David Randles, the BA Sports Journalism programme leader at Liverpool John Moores University, who has spent much of his career on sports desks and in press boxes. She was also joined by Connor Dunn, a public relations account manager who deals with big names from the football world, including Liverpool footballer Trent Alexander-Arnold, and was formerly a journalist at Reach PLC.

The issue of whether the FIFA World Cup 2022 being held in Qatar will be a force of change for good was prominent. Dunn was unsure whether there would be any long-term change in the country but felt there will in the short term, saying that “Qatar will want to show the world they are the best country on earth. They’ll be lax with those sort of rules people in the West will be used to [the human rights violations], as there will be potential for stories to be blown up”.

Therein lies a danger, as Steinfeld pointed out. Reeling off a series of examples, she said: “All of the editorials said that while France won the 2018 World Cup Putin was the real winner. The world forgot about the invasion about Crimea.” The fear therefore is that Qatar will relax their attacks on human rights during the tournament, court international leaders, put on a great show and as a result people will walk away with a much better impression of the country than they really should.

Despite attempts to appear more moderate, Randles said that he thinks most minorities would not visit the country due to safety issues. He said: “Would you go to support your team in a regime which doesn’t support you? I don’t think so. If you don’t feel safe, why would you go?” He also pointed out the fact that in Qatar’s neighbouring country Saudi Arabia (whose Sovereign Fund bought Newcastle FC last year), women still cannot attend football games.

Naturally discussion came round to the issue of migrant workers, who have died in huge numbers during the building of infrastructure for Qatar. Sadly the exact numbers are hard to come by, a nature of how tightly information is controlled in the country.

Dunn though highlighted one potential positive that has emerged from the heightened awareness of awful working conditions in Qatar. With claims of potential slave labour being used due to Qatar’s punitive ‘Kafala’ system (which has since been reformed on the back of World Cup coverage), there are hopes for reparations in the future. Dunn said: “There are calls to give the same amount of money the World Cup winner will win, which is about 440 million dollars, to make reparations and give that to underpaid migrant workers and families of those who have died. It’s not a big chunk of the predicted profits from the tournament but goes some way to changing things.”

On other positives that could come out of Qatar, all the panel agreed that football still has a unique way to be transformative. Steinfeld cited Permi Jhooti’s story from the new magazine which inspired the film Bend it Like Beckham, an interview with the head of the Afghan Women’s football team and the England Lionesses winning the recent European Championships for the nation’s first major trophy in 56 years.

And of course footballers, with their millions of fans, are often more listened to than politicians and could use their platform when in the country to raise rights issues. While they accepted that footballers shouldn’t be compelled to speak up, the event was full of examples of those who have – like Marcus Rushford and his campaign for free school meals – and in so doing have brought about important and far-reaching societal change.