The Rise and Fall of Citizen’s Voice
One undeniable effect of the mass media failure of principle in reporting the Gezi events was to reinforce the rise of social networks and online communications as alternative sources of news and information.
Online communications and social networking has been rising (a December 2012 Pew Research Center study showed that 35 percent of Turks use social networking sites) and surged in the summer of 2013 as social networks rapidly moved to fill the vacuum left by mainstream media in temporary shutdown over the Gezi protests. The online reporting of the developing crisis enraged the authorities and there were a number of people who were detained for posting provocative messages.
The power of citizens’ voice through the web has been learned by the government, says journalist Andrew Finkel. He says they now better understand the extent to which social media is being used, and it’s not by their allies.(19)
This realization has led the government to resolve to extend its use of social media, as an instrument among its own ranks, particularly among its young supporters. Finkel’s argument is backed up by reports that the AKP has recruited thousands as part of a drive to increase its presence on social media and counter critical sentiments expressed against the government.(20)
However, the mix of journalism and social networking also has its dangers as highlighted by the case of Azerbaijani journalist, Mahir Zeynalov, who works for the English-language daily Today’s Zaman.
He was accused by the Prime Minister’s office of making false statements in two of his tweets, and of inciting hatred and animosity and was deported from the country in February 2014 and banned from entering Turkey even though he has a residence and work permit and is married to a Turkish citizen. The incident enraged leading journalists’ groups.
“It is shocking that the authorities in Turkey have gone to such great lengths to identify Zeynalov through his Twitter account and track him down for deportation” said Mogens Blicher Bjerregård, President of the European Federation of Journalists. “It is clearly a systematic targeting of journalists with the aim to silence their critical voices.”(21)
The government’s determination to tame the internet was further on parade with the passage of a tough new internet law early in 2014, which strengthens control over internet access and use of social networks. The law allows the state regulator to force internet service providers to block web pages within four hours if they are deemed to infringe privacy without going through the courts.
Not surprisingly, the move infuriated free speech campaigners across the information landscape, but particularly within the online community. The new law is likened to China’s infamous ‘great firewall’ and as one online commentator says, “it takes internet-phobia to new levels, and represents an unprecedented attack on the free speech rights of Turkish citizens.”(22)
It has also angered the European Union. In a robust statement Brussels officials complained that the law improperly restricts freedom of expression, pointing in particular to a requirement that internet service providers monitor online comments and that browser histories be retained for two years. “The Turkish public deserves more information and more transparency, not more restrictions,” said Peter Stano, European Commission spokesman.(23)
But the expansion of online information is not all good news. Some of the anonymous (and thus hard to trace and hold accountable) internet sites that mushroomed in the country during this period are notorious for misinformation, hate speech and merciless character assassination.
Some of those particularly targeted on such web sites are the journalists and academics who once supported the government but who are increasingly disenchanted at the slow pace of democratic reform. Often a fearful atmosphere is created which can lead to violence and threats of violence against journalists. Rumours abound that the new state intelligence agency (MIT) is behind internet sites full of libellous, abominable slanders, echoing the behaviour of the old office of the Chief of Staff which was behind some of the websites that targeted the ruling AKP during the old order.
The former Chief of Staff lker Babu who apparently turned a blind eye to those seditious, anti-government websites was sentenced to life imprisonment in August 2013. At the same time media organisations have had a sharp reminder the mixing journalism and social networking can be a recipe for confusion and misunderstanding.
Everyone should be free to express their personal opinions online, no matter how opinionated or offensive they may be, but does this right apply to working journalists? Journalism, after all, has its ethical limits, not to say employment responsibilities.
It is a question which the Doğan Group, one of Turkey’s leading media conglomerates addressed in the aftermath of the Gezi events. Aydın Doğan, the company’s founder spelled out the challenge to journalists in January 2014, when he urged all the company’s workers and journalists to use social media with care and to be transparent in their comments.
“Newspaper and magazine staff must not ignore their professional and institutional identities in social media,” he said. “ They must stand aside from behaviour that could undermine the institutions’ reputation.”
The company has updated its publishing principles which sets out the ethical obligations of staff and journalists with a new 24th principle that warns journalists not to make statements on behalf of media on social networks unless they are authorized and not to leak information about what goes on inside the newsroom or any other part of the company’s operations.
(17) BBC Report, November 14th 2013
(18) Report BIA News Desk , October 25th 2013
(19) Interview with EJN delegation November 19th 2013
(20) See http://www.ft.com/home/middleeast