Protests expose the extent of self-censorship in Turkish media

Only days after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called social media “the worst menace to society”, the country arrested 25 social media users in Izmir for allegedly “spreading untrue information” on Twitter. Sara Yasin gives a rundown on Turkey’s Twitter phobia

While most of the Twitter users have now been released, one user is still being held by police. The nature of the offending messages remains unclear, but a number of the videos capturing police brutality have been filmed in the coastal city.

Turkey’s main media outlets deliberately chose not to cover the protests initially, driving Turks to social media in search of information. Ece Temelkuran wrote for Index that Twitter users became virtual organizers of aid and support. Turkey’s major news outlets have been heavily criticised for opting to cover programmes about cooking, schizophrenia, and in the case of CNN Turk — penguins, instead of the protests. This reticence has exposed the extent of censorship and self-censorship in the Turkish media.

Related: “There is now a menace which is called Twitter” | Turkey losing its way on free speech

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Join Index on Censorship and a panel of Turkish and British writers to discuss free speech in Turkey, 22 June, Arcola Theatre London

As of Thursday, there have been three deaths and an estimated 4,000 injuries since the start of protests.

The integrity of Turkey’s media coverage is not a new problem: as Yavuz Baydar wrote in Al Monitor this week, “for a long time now, the news coverage of the Turkish media has been shaped by the personal interests of ambitious, powerful, money-making bosses with the government.” In other words: staying in business has meant toeing the government line.

Index CEO Kirsty Hughes criticised the Turkish government’s growing authoritarian tendencies and condemned the “deliberate creation of media censorship, and the brutality of police in the face of mass protests.”

China’s government still mute on Tiananmen

On the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests — when Chinese security forces carried out a violent crackdown on protesters occupying the legendary square in Beijing’s centre killing hundreds — Index on Censorship calls on the Chinese government to honour its constitutional commitment to free speech and to allow free access to information about the events. Sara Yasin writes

Sina-Weibo-DucksChina has been working hard to crush attempts to commemorate the anniversary — both on and offline. Dozens of police officers have blocked the gates to the Wanan cemetery where victims of the massacres are buried, visited annually by the Tiananmen Mothers.

China has declared today “Internet maintenance day” — where the authorities darken sites in the name of “maintenance.” In previous years, China’s day of online maintenance has included shutting down blogs and websites with reputations for veering from the ruling party’s line. The Chinese-language Wikipedia page containing an uncensored account of the massacre was blocked by authorities on Monday.

Users of China’s most popular microblogging site, Sina Weibo, have been blocked from typing in variants of phrases like “June 4”, “Today”, “candle”, and “in memory of.” Also included in the banned list is “big yellow duck” — a reference to a photoshopped image where tanks were replaced with rubber ducks in the iconic photograph of a lone protester standing before a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square.

The United States today called on Chinese authorities to release the full account of those two bloody days, as there is not even an official death toll. China shot back through the state-run Xinhua news agency, urging the US to “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs so as not to sabotage China-US relations.”

A reputation for censorship

China’s ruling Communist Party has also recently released a list of seven banned topics, and has been quick to curb discussion of the “dangerous Western influences” online. The political topics, which include “freedom of speech”, “civil rights”, “crony capitalism”, and “The historical errors of the Chinese Communist Party”, were banned by the country’s top propaganda officials. When East China University of Political Science and Law professor Zhang Xuezhong posted the seven “speak-nots” online, the post was quickly deleted by censors.

As Wen Yunchao wrote for Index, Chinese censorship is “mainly aimed at the control of news and discussion of current affairs. Day-to-day censorship in China falls into two categories. The government’s propaganda authorities supervise websites that are legally licensed to carry news, while those without a license are dealt with by the public security authorities and the internet police. Unlicensed websites that are considered particularly influential may also be overseen by propaganda officials.”

The Chinese state’s control of the web is a model of bad behaviour for other nations around the world, according to a New York Times report. A dirty dozen or so control what the country’s citizens read and write online.

With over 500 million web users in China, the shear size of the Chinese user base makes censorship a leaky bucket for the country. A study conducted by two American computer scientists estimated that 30 per cent of banned posts are removed within half an hour of posting, and 90 per cent within 24 hours. Suzanne Nossel, executive director of the PEN American centre, wrote in April that China’s censors are caught in “a race against new platforms and technologies.”

The country’s notoriously strict censorship machine has earned it low rankings for press freedom and freedom of expression: it ranked 173rd out of 179 in this year’s World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders — only coming ahead of free speech all-stars Iran, Somalia, SyriaTurkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea. According to the report, “commercial news outlets and foreign media are still censored regularly.”   The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported that China uses libel suits to silence journalists — and there are 32 jailed journalists as of December 2012.

Do film protests really mean a failed Arab Spring?

Sniperphoto Agency | Demotix

 A Libyan woman shows her ink-stained finger after voting during the National Assembly election this year. (Demotix)

As protests against the anti-Islam film, The Innocence of Muslims, rage on across the globe, some began to ask if this means that the so-called Arab Spring was a failure, as news from the Arab world is once more dominated by chanting, burning American flags and beards. This conclusion is not only problematic, it is also wrong.

The number of protests only seems to grow, but we aren’t really saying much about the amount of people that are actually participating in them. Take Egypt — protests against the film drew about 2,000 protesters in Cairo Friday. A paltry number compared to the reported 1,000,000 that took to the streets of Cairo to call for the fall of Mubarak’s regime last year. Even now, labour protests have spread across schools, universities, and government bodies in Egypt, with thousands demanding improved pay and rights. The Muslim Brotherhood claimed that it organised 350 protests nationwide, no doubt distracting from some of the growing discontent with Morsi’s presidency.

There is no doubt that religious extremism is very present in the Arab world, but these groups are more interested in power, rather than protecting the integrity of Islam or the Prophet. I think it is no surprise that calls for protests have come from political religious groups like the Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Religion is a pretty quick and easy tool to gain support and divide populations.

Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, made a rare public appearance to address tens of thousands of protesters in Beirut, but made it clear that protests were about the age-old enemy: the US and Israel. No doubt an important message for Nasrallah, as his ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad continues to wage a brutal war to stay in power. Focusing on an external threat is a convenient way to distract from an internal struggle.

Sectarianism has been the choice tool of many repressive regimes and political groups. One of the major victories of the so-called Arab Spring was a start of a conversation to push back on those lines — hurting political groups and regimes that draw their loyalty along religious lines. Still, political leaders have clamoured to use the revolutions to their advantage, strategically condemning human rights abuses, and turning a blind eye when similar abuses are inconvenient. In a translation of a speech by Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, where he condemned Syria’s regime, Iranian state TV replaced “Syria” with “Bahrain”.

Bahrain’s government has painted the country’s ongoing unrest as a Shia uprising, even though the protesters’ demands have been secular, and largely focused on calling for democracy. In addition to a brutal crackdown on protests, state-owned media has depicted the protesters as Shia troublemakers and agents of Iran — a transparent attempt to use religion to crush dissent. While Bahrain has voiced concern over Syria, it has yet to address its own ongoing human rights abuses.

Last year’s uprisings were the start of a long road of change, and religious extremism is another part of those struggles. The Arab world, much like many other parts of the world, is a region that has been rife with corruption, despotism and inequality, as well as groups struggling to gain power with whatever tools they can get, including religious, ethnic or racial identities. Boiling unrest in the region down to Muslim anger or an inherent hatred of the West is short-sighted: it only encourages the flattened image that benefits the groups who wish to exploit it.

Sara Yasin is an Editorial Assistant at Index on Censorship. She tweets from @MissYasin

Also read:

Padraig Reidy: A new argument for censorship?

Jamie Kirchick: Islam blasphemy riots now self-fulfilling prophecy

Myriam Francois-Cerrah: Film protests about much more than religion


Five bizarre blasphemy cases

An 11-year-old girl with Down’s Syndrome was last week arrested in Pakistan, after an angry mob demanded that the girl be punished for allegedly desecrating the Qur’an — the Islamic holy book. The young girl is a resident of a Christian neighbourhood on the outskirts of Islamabad, from where over 600 citizens have now fled after calls for her arrest were accompanied by threats to burn Christian homes in the area. This isn’t the first blasphemy case we’ve seen come out of Pakistan — earlier this year, charges were brought against Facebook for hosting “blasphemous content”. In September 2011, a young Christian school girl was expelled for misspelling a word on an exam question tied to a poem revering the prophet Muhammad.