Recent Convergence of Media Crackdown and Political Persecutions in Turkey
A Close Look on November 4-5, 2016
The struggle for truth continues in the media landscape of Turkey as 12 members of the parliament from HDP (People's Democratic Party), including the co-leaders of the party, were detained during the early hours of Friday, November 4th through house raids, and later nine of them were arrested by court order. During the morning hours of the day while MPs were kept under custody in the city of Diyarbakır, a car bomb exploded in the Bağlar district of Diyarbakır, close to the police station where HDP deputies were held. The death toll of the bomb attack reached eleven by Saturday afternoon. What took place between the early hours of Friday until the evening of Saturday (when this text was written), in terms of the media coverage and government's crackdown on media and internet, is illustrative of the escalating totalitarianism in Turkey and follows a trajectory that has repeated too many times in the past couple years, particularly since the end of ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish State. So, instead of providing the political and historical context of these unfolding events, this text will first provide a short chronology of these two days from the perspective of media coverage.
Social media services Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and messaging services WhatsApp, Skype, and Instagram were inaccessible throughout Turkey beginning Friday 1:20 am local time, ongoing through into Friday afternoon, around the time the house raids to HDP deputies commenced. Following the suicide car bomb attack in the morning, a broadcast ban was imposed, forbidding the dissemination or publication of any news about the attack, as happened with the previous terror attacks that targeted civilians in the recent past. The governor of Diyarbakır and later during the day Prime Minister Yıldırım Binali declared PKK as responsible for the attack, the outlawed Kurdish armed guerilla group that is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, EU and the US. Social media services Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and messaging services WhatsApp, Skype, and Instagram were inaccessible throughout Turkey beginning Friday 1:20 am local time, ongoing through into Friday afternoon. On Friday afternoon, around 6 pm EDT, Reuters reported that the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, a news story that was also reported by other foreign news organizations. This news story was only covered by small news media outlets on the Internet and reached only a small section of the society due to the blockage of Internet services. On Saturday, corporate and nationalist newspapers were published with headlines on their front pages that link the two events, namely, the detention of parliamentarians and the bomb attack, accusing PKK for the bomb attack which was interpreted as the justification for the detention of parliamentarians (even though MPs were already in custody during the attack).
On Saturday, the governor of Diyarbakır repeated the claim that PKK was responsible for the attack. The state agency regulating the Internet telecommunications and technologies (BTK) announced on Saturday that it will also block access to VPN services, on which many people depend in Turkey as well as various media services (for instance, the state's news agency AA continued to post on Twitter while the service was not accessible in Turkey). Two HDP deputies who were released on Friday, Diyarbakır deputy Ziya Pir and Ankara deputy Sırrı Süreyya Önder, claimed that the car bomb attack was targeting the HDP MPs in custody. Pir wrote on Twitter that Selahattin Demirtaş, Nursel Aydoğan, Gülser Yıldırım and himself were taken out of the bombed building minutes before the attack. Önder made a public statement and argued that IS intended to perpetrate a massacre of Kurdish politicians in custody. While Internet access was still slow on Saturday, TV news channels, including NTV and CNNTurk, continued to report on the car bomb attack as they did the previous day, pointing PKK as responsible for the attack, in line with the official statements.
So, why does it matter if the car bomb attack on Friday in Diyarbakır was perpetrated by PKK or IS? Firstly, because PKK depends on its commitment of not targeting civilians for the support or sympathy of the people living in the region. During the protest on Saturday in Istanbul against the detention and arrest of HDP deputies, protestors shouted “HDP is people, and people are here.” (Around 100 people were detained following the protests in Istanbul and Adana.) Protesters adapted the slogan that is generally only heard in the Kurdish majority southeast Turkey: “PKK is people, and people are here.” Secondly, and more importantly, the car bomb attack in Diyarbakır on Friday was the first suicide bomb attack in Turkey to which IS claimed responsibility. A succession of terror attacks that took place in Turkey1 were attributed to IS by the state officials, but the group did not claim responsibility for these attacks (even though it has claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Saudi Arabia). In Turkey, IS has so far only claimed responsibility for the assassination of four Syrian journalists in the cities of Antep and Urfa. The short answer to the question posed above is that, the AKP government of Turkey has manipulated these terror attacks, which it attributed to IS, to justify its military operations in Syria and north of Iraq, and to become a part of the international coalition against IS. Turkey did not become a part of this coalition, and Turkey didn't fight IS or jihadists across the border, but YGP and Kurdish guerrillas in North Syria. And internally, by blaming PKK for the attack, AKP government and President Erdoğan can continue to draw on the power it has consolidated after the coup attempt of 15 July 2016, as well as on the nationalists' support it received from the other main opposition parties in the parliament, CHP and MHP, in lifting the immunity of HDP deputies in the general assembly in May 2016, by claiming to wage war against terror.
Adding further confusion about the target and intent of the bomb attack, ANF (Firat News Agency which publishes news in Kurdish, Turkish and English) claimed on Sunday that TAK (a Kurdish militant group that is alleged to be an offshoot of PKK who publicly disowns its actions) is responsible for the attack and the group “is expected to soon share the details of the action on its official website”. ANF published the news story in Turkish, quoting the full statement of TAK, which an hour later was published on the group's website. This created suspicion among social media users on whether ANF was hacked in order for the statement to be published on their website but later ANF Twitter account denied this claim that its website was hacked. So, there was a car bomb attack next to the building where newly detained HDP deputies were held in custody in Diyarbakır, and this attack was claimed by two different groups with completely different agendas, and the state officials continued to claim that it was made by yet another. And the most baffling for those who follow the events closely was that it was equally credible (or incredible) for either group (IS or TAK) to have committed this attack. A lot has been speculated on this dual ownage, and it surely raises many questions. (See for instance the summary and list of questions by Twitter user @nishtmann in Turkish). Whether the government will address these claims and change its narrative or not, one can argue that the bomb attack has diverted the attention from the detention and arrest of elected members of the parliament.
This is not the first time that the Turkish government cracks down Internet or the corporate media aligns itself with the official narrative. Nor is it the first incident of state's persecution of Kurdish politicians. Pro-Kurdish political parties were closed in the 90s, and the threshold for parliamentary representation was kept at 10 percent for political parties during national elections which resulted in the exclusion of these political parties from participating in the national assembly. HDP became the first pro-Kurdish political party to receive more than 10 percent of the overall votes during the general elections of June 2015. The peace process was still on the political agenda of the country at the time (after the ceasefire and Öcalan's declaration for a new stage toward peace in March 2013). HDP gained support from the western and urban parts of Turkey, in addition to the support in the southeast region, through a coalition it made with other parties, bringing together progressives, non-Muslims, as well as Islamists who are critical of the AKP's monopoly on religious discourse. But the recent convergence of media crackdown and persecution of elected Kurdish politicians is signaling toward a total take-over of the state and civil institutions that had actually taken a character of a step-by-step or slow motion coup by President Erdoğan since he declared the July election of 2015 void and forced legal means to repeat the election. At the backdrop of the events that unfolded on 4-5 Nov. in Turkey is the dismissal and arrest of dozens of locally elected Kurdish politicians (from HDP and DBP); AKP government's appointing trustees to these municipalities, a move that defies laws and principles of democracy; the detention of Diyarbakır’s co-mayors, Gültan Kışanak and Fırat Anlı, which was followed by a total shut down of mobile and landline Internet access across 11 cities in the southeast area of the country, started around 10 am local time on 26 October in over 11 cities and continued on for days (Diyarbakır, Mardin, Batman, Siirt, Van, Elazığ, Tunceli, Gaziantep, Şanlıfurfa, Kilis, and Adıyaman). According to HDP, the number of Kurdish municipalities run by bureaucrats appointed by the central government reached 28; about 30 democratically elected Kurdish mayors are now in prison, and about 70 of them were dismissed by the central government. Also two Kurdish news agencies and several Kurdish dailies were shut down, which were instrumental in supplying local news to the country and hence the world, and the detention of the chief-editor, columnists and journalists of the daily Cumhuriyet. The total number of media outlets that were banned reached 170, with more than 130 journalists in prison. At the backdrop is bombed and razed Kurdish neighborhoods, mostly poor neighborhoods, whose inhabitants were mostly consisted of those who were displaced from the rural parts in the 90s, in the cities of Diyarbakır, Mardin, Şırnak, Hakkari, including the district of Sur within the historical walls of Diyarbakır, as a result of the new cycle of war that killed hundreds of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands since July 2015.
All the steps that led Erdoğan to take over the functions and powers of the state were «alarming» and «disconcerting», but the EU was busy negotiating a deal with Erdoğan and the AKP government, which lifted up the walls of Fortress Europe against the flow of refugees from war-stricken countries. The battle for truth is not a cliché for those who live in Turkey and is a daily struggle, not only for journalists, especially not for those brave and young local journalists in the southeast of Turkey who are described by a friend of mine as «walking angels». And even though many people in Turkey heard and remember the voice recording of the then chief of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), Hakan Fidan, suggesting a false flag incursion into Syria, sending some men across and then have them launch few missiles over Turkish soldiers, which was leaked to YouTube a few days before local elections on 30 March 2014, official statements still have credibility when the corporate news media at large is propagating the same lies.
- 1. Bombing at HDP's rally on 5 June 2015 – Diyarbakır; 20 July 2015 – Suruç; 10 October 2015 – Ankara; 12 January 2016 – Sultanahmet-Istanbul; 19 March 2016 – Istiklal Avenue-Istanbul; 28 June 2016 – Atatürk Airport-Istanbul; 20 August 2016 – Antep.