Media coverage reflects polarized agendas in Turkish protests

Newly arrived in Istanbul for a summer internship in early June, NYU Abu Dhabi sophomore Tessa Ayson was regularly checking Twitter one night with some ...

Aug 31, 2013

Newly arrived in Istanbul for a summer internship in early June, NYU Abu Dhabi sophomore Tessa Ayson was regularly checking Twitter one night with some friends. They were following news of protests taking place in the nearby Taksim Square.  The windows to the apartment were shut tight, preventing the acrid smell of tear gas from wafting in off the streets. Reports on Twitter, updated in real-time, appeared to be getting worse. Suddenly, the service stopped working.
“Twitter was the best source of information,” Ayson recalled. “Having our one valuable news source crash before our eyes, it felt like we were really cut off from the outside world.”
The protests, which had begun in late May to oppose the demolition of a public park, had by then already exploded into a widespread social movement of a variety of grievances against the government and the political status quo, extending across Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey.
Roger Friedland, a visiting professor of Social Research and Public Policy who has taught seminars at NYUAD on Turkish society, said social media provided the main mechanisms in the formation and communication of the protests. This was partially a result of mediocre coverage by mainstream national news sources. One circulated image showed CNN International covering live protests while CNN Turkey showed a penguin documentary. The image quickly became viral on social media as a symbol of national media censorship.
“The Turkish media barely covered the protests, so that people had to rely on international news sources, which they would pick up on the Internet or that would be forwarded by their friends [via social media],” Friedland said.
Some experts attribute this to governmental overreach within Turkish media.
“The major structural problem here is that most media bosses depend on government contracts for their other businesses and therefore readily submit to government pressure,” said Ateş Altinordu, assistant professor of Sociology at Sabancı University. “The [Justice and Development Party] has regularly pressured media owners to fire journalists that were critical of government policy.”
Altinordu also noted that the problem of press freedom in Turkey has been exacerbated in recent years. According to the Press Freedom Index of 2013 released by Reporters without Borders, Turkey ranks 154th in the world. This is in contrast to the 2005 report that ranked Turkey as 98th.
Over the course of the protests, reports surfaced  that members of the press and social media users were arrested for what they had published, including 64 journalists and 111 photographers. This further heightened the mistrust of conventional news sources.
“When demonstrators and their sympathizers realized that they cannot rely on the mainstream media for the coverage of the protests, they increasingly resorted to social media, especially to Twitter and Facebook,” Altinordu said, observing that social media users reporting the protests increasingly used self-regulation to avoid unconfirmed reports and maintain verifiable information.
For Ayson, comparing her experiences in Istanbul with international media reports, the differences were revealing.
“I think a lot of the media underestimated how important it was,” Ayson said. “Then I think there was the other end of the extreme, where they were insinuating that people were getting killed on the street and that kind of thing which was, of course, ridiculous.”
Seeing the cracks in media coverage was also illuminating.
“I’ve always expected that they’d be fairly accurate and not too biased towards one way or another [before the protests],” she said. “It’s definitely changed my views.”
“There’s ultimately always someone with a motive, whether they’re writing an article, publishing an article, editing an article, conducting interviews,” Ayson added. “Being there really made me realize that.”
Alistair Blacklock is editor-in-chief. Email him at
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