- Posted March 29, 2014 by
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Turkey: Approaching the Breaking Point
I rushed into the kebab restaurant bathroom unable to breathe as tear gas filled the building. I bent down to the floor and gasped for air, hoping the stinging cloud hadn’t yet penetrated the small room. Outside I could hear the police continuing to fire the gas canisters down the street two floors below. I certainly didn’t expect anything like this when I first came to Turkey nine months ago, I thought to myself. I had never witnessed a bustling and vibrant commercial hub of a metropolitan city turn so quickly into something that resembled a massive urban warzone. I had been studying at Yeditepe University in Istanbul as part of an international exchange program through my home institution, Western Kentucky University. Coming from the United States, studying broadcasting, documentary film production, and editorial photography in such a culturally rich and altogether different part of the world proved to be not only extremely exhilarating and fresh, but also very beneficial and relevant to my interest in international journalism. Little did I know that photography and video projects throughout the city would lead me to the epicenter of the infamous Gezi Park protests.
As I slowly regained composure in the restaurant bathroom, I walked to the sink and looked in the mirror. I had never seen my eyes so bloodshot. I wiped the tears away, looked down at my camera to make sure I hadn’t damaged anything, and went back out to continue what I had started. I knew I couldn’t miss covering the chaos that was taking place directly outside. It was June 1, 2013, and small peaceful demonstrations by environmentalists in Gezi Park a few days before had escalated into massive protests involving hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens. While most Turkish media blatantly avoided the outbreak, broadcasting penguins instead of protests, popular social media sites like Twitter and Facebook helped demonstrators spread the news to all corners of the country in a matter of minutes. Protests in other cities quickly erupted, spawning one of the largest and most widespread political demonstrations in Turkey’s eighty-year history.
I stepped out of the restaurant (which had remained open the entire time) onto Istiklal Avenue and watched as police withdrew from Taksim. Minutes later, thousands of protesters marched down the long pedestrian walkway toward the square, shouting and celebrating the apparent victory. Over the next 72 hours, I witnessed Gezi Park become the lively, fun-loving, hippie-like hub of this new nationwide movement. Protesters battled police all the way down to the Bosphorus Strait, building makeshift barricades on nearly every street and alleyway leading to Taksim. Never in my life had I seen a mass of people completely take over an entire district of a city. What followed surprised me more. The police eventually regained control of Taksim, protests died down, Prime Minister Erdoğan remained in power, and essentially, nothing changed. Negative sentiments and screams for a political overhaul were left on the burner, only this time with a tighter lid.
Upon completing the exchange program at Yeditepe and graduating from my home university late last summer, I decided to return to Istanbul in October to live and work as a freelance documentary filmmaker, photographer, and journalist. I realized, after all, that Turkey would be a “hotspot” for social and political activity leading up to municipal elections on March 30, 2014, and then general elections in 2015. As expected, I have witnessed further violent demonstrations involving deeply rooted sentiments on both sides (police and protesters) and drastic changes in government regulations, especially concerning the internet. Just within the past two weeks, Turkish officials have banned Twitter and Youtube nationwide. The Prime Minister has openly blasted social media sites since Gezi Park, and he has helped usher in unprecedented legal control over users’ access to thousands of websites.
I personally am very amazed at how recent government scandals, including the reported embezzlement of millions of dollars by the Prime Minister’s political party, leaks of incriminating audio tapes, the firing of top ministers, and the ongoing imprisonment and deportation of foreign journalists have not utterly shaken the people of Turkey to take action into their own hands, similar to what happened last summer. Now with the fresh bans on widely used social media sites, and Erdoğan’s threats to take down Facebook in the process, I keep wondering if this will be the tipping point. I have found the resilience and patience of Turkish people to be quite astonishing.
Turkey labels itself politically as a parliamentary representative democracy. Yet, government actions against fundamental freedoms of expression and speech, as well as the controversial imprisonment of many high-ranking political and military officials who have spoken out against the prime minister and his AK Party, have led a number of Turks to classify their own government as nothing short of a dictatorship.
Additionally, increasing internet regulations placed Turkey in the “partly free” category of a Freedom House report on internet censorship published last year, meaning that the country was doing mildly better on the freedom chart than Syria, China, and Iran.
In America, if we were to lose our right to access an unrestricted world wide web, where we can Tweet and post whatever content we desire on Youtube or Facebook, I know the reaction would be immediate and fierce. The fundamental standards of democracy would be shattered. Now that I find myself thousands of miles away from the States, being in a “free” nation where I can’t even access my recently completed documentary on the world’s most popular video sharing website makes me, yes, a little frustrated, but much more curious. The Prime Minister has gone this far, and somehow he remains in power. Most people continue to accept whatever measures are taken. Yet, what are the limits, and how much is too much before a massive uprising, perhaps even a revolution, breaks out?
Thinking as we might in the States, especially around election time, another important point that must be addressed is the alternative. If Tayyip Erdoğan is removed from power, or if he is successfully and legally replaced by the people’s vote next year, then who will replace him? Most military generals and political leaders who potentially could be next in line, so to speak, have either been imprisoned by the Prime Minister or gone into exile. I have heard some of my Turkish friends express that other powerful contenders would be just as corrupt and problematic as Erdoğan, if not worse. I see the ongoing waves of protests and calls for change in the streets of my own neighborhood in Istanbul, and I wonder if these fearless demonstrators even know what the next step should be if victory is achieved. [Then again, what is victory in this case when Gezi Park was just a minor win of a short-term battle?] This may be why many Turkish people either settle for the politics of this country as they stand now instead of popping the cork and acting on tensions that have been building for years, long before last summer’s protests.
Now, the day before municipal elections across Turkey, I remain surprised that we have made it this far with relatively little negative response from the population, despite strict government censorship and irrefutable evidence of leadership that is far from being within the confines of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” This nation ticks on an entirely different clock than what I’m accustomed to back in America; yet, it still ticks away and maintains an amazing resilience to massive fluctuations in the status quo. Whatever happens after Sunday’s elections will most likely lead to a long-overdue public response, one that will undoubtedly involve much more than kebab restaurants clouded with tear gas.