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May 10, 2021

Tear gas v Twitter as Turkey slides away from democracy

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Members of a Turkish family arrive to join an anti-government protest in Ankara on Sunday. In a series of increasingly belligerent speeches, Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a verbal attack on the tens of thousands of anti-government protesters who flooded the streets for a 10th day, accusing them of creating an environment of terror. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)


Erinch Sahan, Turkish-Australian who recently travelled to Istanbul, tells his story (through Crikey)

As I stood in the crowd of nervous but resolute protesters, I could hear the helicopters flying overhead. Some were saying that tear gas had been fired from helicopters, so a few of us were quite nervous. However, we continued chanting ‘this country is secular, and it will remain secular’ as we crept forward towards the front line.

This was my weekend in Istanbul inhaling tear gas. But I’m energised by the courage of millions who are standing up for free speech. We got tear-gassed by a government that says, ‘we won an election. We will now shape this nation in our image.’

At the protests, the young men were returning from the front, injured, covering their faces – the crowd applauded them as they retreated. Those who had rested were taking their place. Then another round of tear gas would be shot our way and we’d all retreat, only to start our gradual creep forward again. This process continued all night.

On the second night, the police had more potent gas. Rumours were spreading that it was agent orange, because it was an orange colour. While the police waited quite a while before trying to disperse us, at one point they decided enough was enough and shot the more potent gas into the crowd from down the hill. We fled; only the most hardline activists remained.

The camaraderie among the protesters was amazing. Anyone returning from the front line was given a pat on the back, offered water and assistance from volunteer medics. It was a mood of unity I hadn’t experienced in Turkey before.

Let me tell you why I and millions of others were on the streets. Power has been monopolised by a single man, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist.

Western commentators call him ‘mildly Islamist’ but most suspect he’s just a ‘patient Islamist’. It seems recently that his patience ran out and his confidence to be bold about reshaping Turkey took hold. His immediate response to the protests was to launch a tirade on the ‘lies’ spread over Twitter, concluding that ‘we should hang them from the very trees’. He went on TV to declare ‘whoever drinks alcohol is an alcoholic’.

In April, Turkey’s most accomplished classical musician, Fazil Say, was handed a suspended 10-month prison sentence because he ‘insulted religious values’ by retweeting a poem criticising Islam.

Two weeks ago, Ankara’s subway authorities declared that passengers should ‘act in accordance with moral rules’ to tackle the rampant social problem of couples kissing in public. If you’ve been to Turkey, you’ll know that there is hardly an epidemic of public fornication.

Last week the government passed legislation to severely limit alcohol sales. Yet Turkey ranks 150th globally in alcohol consumption and is the soberest country in Europe.



There’s a long list of changes that have happened in Turkey, as The Economist notes:

‘Islamic clerical training for middle-school pupils has come back, Koran courses have grown and finding a drink in rural Anatolia is hard. Turkish Airlines no longer serves alcohol on most domestic flights. In government offices hemlines have dropped.’

This shows Erdogan’s boldness, his mission to Islamise Turkey through his control of the state apparatus. He does this in the guise of ‘respecting the values of the majority’. But what he means is that the minority adopt the choices of conservative Turks.

One protester told me: ‘He’s telling us how to live, and he’s saying that it’s so we respect the values of the country.’ And ambitions to adopt special protections for mainstream beliefs is not limited to Turkey, Erdogan is pushing for an international law against blasphemy.

The complaint I heard repeatedly from people marching last weekend was that ‘Erdogan is controlling even the media. How will we know the truth?’ Here’s how protests targeted the media. And here’s a summary by Al Jazeera on how Turkey’s media barons are kept in check by the government.

A month ago, an explosion in the town of Reyhanli killed over 40 people. What even the Western media is failing to see is that the Turkish media effectively ignored the event after the government formally restricted coverage.

Convenient, as many would suspect Syrian opposition fighters for the attack, the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front, which Erdogan had supported until very recently. Erdogan’s unpopular meddling in Syria and support for violent jihadists would have been blamed for the death of dozens.


Muscles flexed

Erdogan flexed his muscles and many Turks weren’t given the information to draw that conclusion.

Then again on Friday, while the police were indiscriminately firing tear gas towards us, a crowd of thousands of unarmed protesters, the media showed beauty contests and police dramas.

When they did show the events, they focused on the violent few and never asked the crowd of Leftists and Rightists, taxi drivers and nurses, why they were there.

It was clear that there was an explicit or implicit command from the new king of the block to avoid inducing public sympathy.

Only one obscure TV station had the courage to report live on the protests, Halk TV, it received a formal warning not to humiliate the prime minister. Remember that Turkey has more journalists in jail than any other country.

What Erdogan doesn’t control is Twitter and Facebook, and it’s infuriating him. In fact, social media was the only way we could see the scale of the police brutality, which triggered our march to Taksim Square.

So now Erdogan is looking to solve that ‘problem’. Those who tweeted about the protests are being arrested.

His excuses are simple. It’s ‘drunks’, ‘extremists’ and Twitter to blame. Not his policies. Not his lack of consultation.

I have never felt so inspired as I did this weekend, seeing everyone, Kurds and Turks, nationalists and communists, Islamic anti-capitalists and gay rights activists, conservative Turks and women’s rights activists, arm in arm, realising power is becoming monopolised and their freedoms eroded.

People around the world are supporting free speech by tweeting: #occupygezi #occupyistanbul, and #direngezi (meaning resist Gezi). I’ve now left Turkey, but my heart is with the courageous millions in Istanbul.

* Erinch Sahan is a Turkish-Australian development specialist who formerly co-hosted a program on SBS. He was born in the Turkish city of Bursa and grew up in Sydney. He tweets at @ErinchSahan.



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