In the last three years the climate for online free expression in Turkey has gone from relatively bad to awful. Mirroring the more general human rights situation that has progressively deteriorated, online free expression has become a key battleground. In this context, it should come as little surprise that the “usual suspects” – the “Dictators Little Helpers” as some have called them – have begun delivering increasingly advanced software and hardware to the Turkish government (Kehl & Morgus, 2014).At this point, it seems credible to assume that not only mass censorship and filtering but wide scale mass surveillance is taking place. Responsibility for such a failure cannot be laid at the feet of the Turkish government alone. If anything, the spiral into violence in Turkey also represents a failure of its key partners and neighbours. For example, the politics of Turkey’s EU accession made it impossible to “lock in” any progress made in the area of human rights. Instead repressive measures against free expression and other political rights have dominated Turkish politics since 2011, with successively more repressive measures since May 2011 heavily influencing Turkish politics. These authoritarian methods are reminiscent of other countries in the region but also of other authoritarian states such as Russia. Frustratingly, many of the countries affected by the Arab uprisings have praised the Turkish model and attempted to emulate it in some way or another. It should be emphasized however that the “Turkish model” in which even moderate political reform was considered possible no longer exists and that post-revolutionary countries would do better to look elsewhere for guidance.
Abdullah Gül, President, Republic of Turkey (2007-14), offers his reflections on his time in office.
We started covering the news in earnest in January of 2012. We skipped our college classes to attend trials and protests, and we shared via social media photographs, audio and video recordings, and reports of what we witnessed. We covered leftist factions supporting arrested journalists, radical Islamic groups protesting abortion, and a trial involving game-fixing by one of the nation’s favorite football clubs. We were so new to all this that when a Turkish media critic told us we were engaged in “citizen journalism,” we had to look up the term on Wikipedia. Months later, Zeynep Tufekci, a Turkish-born professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who studies the intersection of technology and society, told me, “This is not ‘citizen journalism.’ This is ‘journalistic citizenship.’” Journalistic citizenship is an important model, not just for my country but for other countries where people aren’t getting the news they need.
His rhetoric plays on a schism in Turkish society between a western-facing, largely secular segment of the population suspicious of his conservative Islamic ideals and a pious, working-class mass who see him as a hero for returning religious values to public life and driving a decade of growth. It is a strategy, his opponents say, which sees him deliberately appeal to only the half of the population while ignoring the rest. Yet even Erdogan’s critics acknowledge that he has overseen Turkey’s transformation from a financial backwater into one of the world’s most dynamic economies, a record which means that a narrow majority of voters – as well as investors – have kept giving him the benefit of the doubt. “One of the greatest fears is that the government will make populist policies, which will grossly affect growth, but they haven’t done that yet,” said an Ankara-based diplomat, asking not to be identified so as to speak more freely. “Erdogan is a smart man, he can turn the bleakest situations to his advantage. He is only focused on the 50 percent. His only point of reference is to stay in power,” he said. “He’s as pragmatic as you can get.”
Reflecting on how events have unfolded in the past year, some have been driven to despair that the spark of hope ignited by the Gezi movement has been extinguished. An unrelenting government has become even more hostile towards opposition with its last electoral victory, taken as a “vindication of the national will”. Nonetheless, as we witness the divorce of democracy and individual liberties in the political scene, there is another dynamic at play. The Gezi movement has instigated an irreversible grassroots socialisation, which still finds expression in daily life—through local forums, civic initiatives and a process of deliberation across different social cleavages. It has paved the way for greater political awareness and cultivated democratic values of civic involvement.