Social media has empowered populations in emerging markets and allowed mass protests to organise organically, creating irresistible opposition to authoritarian leaders. The latest example has come in Turkey, where peaceful protests on Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul exploded into violence on Friday, May 31 as police moved in to clear demonstrators who were protesting against plans to build a shopping centre on what is now Gezi park, one of the few patches of green left in the city centre.
Tweets with the hash tag #occupygezi proliferated. And after police in full riot gear appeared to beat protestors and burn their tents, the protests became increasingly political, unleashing anger over the government's increasingly heavy-handed treatment.
The Turkish government made one mistake after another. The state media totally ignored the events in Istanbul, but tweets of bleeding protestors and running street battles were quickly promulgated across the country and violence spread to several other cities over the weekend. According to unconfirmed reports, locals in Ankara reported via Twitter that the police response to demonstrations that broke out in the capital was even more violent than in Istanbul.
Iconic images surfaced to fuel the rage. A woman in a red dress and a white handbag slung over her shoulder, who appears to be out for a weekend stroll, stood helplessly as a group of police in riot gear shot pressured pepper spray straight into her face. This epitomised the mismatch between the reports from the protestors and those from the authorities.
The cat is out of the bag now and experts were speculating on June 3 that a "Turkish Summer" of protest and violence lies ahead
Turkey's prickly and increasingly authoritarian-looking prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, looked out of touch as the situation spun out of control. He finally addressed the protests in a live speech broadcast on all state TV that defended his record on planting trees, which only made things worse as the demonstrations had long since gone beyond the issue of Gezi park.
Already by the evening of May 31 protestors were demanding three things: the cancelation of the plans to develop Gezi; an apology by police for the use of tear gas (which even Erdogan admitted had gone too far); and for the prime minister's resignation.
Turkey has been booming in recent years and the people largely ignored the increasingly tight control the state has taken over the political process. But clearly frustrations have been building and the #occupygezi protests were the spark that lit the fuse.
The lack of media coverage on Turkish state TV became farcical. As CNN US went live to the protests during the headlines at the top of the hour, CNN Turkey was broadcasting a documentary on penguins. State TV chose to run cooking shows and light entertainment, while Twitter was lighting up with video of police indiscriminately beating passers by walking on the embankment or the violent clashes at the epicentre in Istanbul. "We just saw a man probably lose an eye to a rubber bullet. Running for a doctor, his whole face bloody. A total warzone," tweeted @J06A from Istanbul during one of the clashes.
Tourists that normally flock to Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul's old centre were fleeing their hotels and making for the airport as the air became unbreathable, due to the amount of tear gas fired by police into the crowds. And not just in Istanbul. "There is intense police crackdown in Kizilay, Ankara. Ones like me, asthma patients, can't survive these gas. People will die if they continue," tweeted @TurkeyPulse on Sunday, a local journalist.
Commentators have said if nothing else comes out of these protests, the total failure of the state-controlled media and shocking self-censorship of outlets like CNN Turkey has been thrown into stark relief, blackening the image of a country which has become the darling of the equity investors. Turkey has the worst press freedoms record of any of the major emerging market and has more journalists in jail for simply doing their job (aka criticising the government) than China, India or Russia. Only one domestic Turkish station was brave enough to cover the riots, the liberal Halk TV, but on June 3 its website had reportedly been hacked and is currently showing adverts.
The state is clearly sensitive to negative press, but is attempting to close its eyes to the protests in the hope they will go away, with a little help from the riot police. Well-known anchor of Turley's Kanal D, Erhan Karadag, has already apparently become a victim for daring to back the protests. "Journalist Erhan Karadag (Ankara chief of Kanal D) detained by police for 'providing support to protestors'," @rodrikdani tweeted as the news spread rapidly across the country.
There have since been Twitter reports that Karadag was released after eight hours of detention, but there was no independent confirmation due to the domestic media blackout on the events that is effectively in place. However, international media are reporting that between 1,000 and 1,700 people have been arrested.
Erdogan finally gave a speech at the weekend, but took a tough line that only inflamed the situation. He looked out of touch by defending his record on tree planting and went on to demonise Twitter in comments that were also predictably enough widely re-tweeted: "There is this trouble called twitter now, social media, in my opinion, is the biggest trouble for all societies," Erdogan said.
If Erdogan's speech was designed to calm the mood, it had exactly the opposite effect, as incensed Turks went back onto the streets after it was over. On Sunday, June 2, for a third night in a row the protestors gathered in Taksim square and chanted for the PM to resign. Erdogan called the demonstrations illegitimate and told protestors to express their dissatisfactions at the ballot box. He also said in what proved to be a provocation to the swelling ranks of the protestors: "If you can put 100,000 people on the street, I can put a million."
Ergodan also made himself a laughing stock by claiming in the same speech that anyone who drinks alcohol is an alcoholic, a comment that was of course instantly and widely retweeted.
The brutal repression of the Turkish protests have found resonance in other countries in Eastern Europe and will only turn up the temperature on leaders like Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Supporters showed their solidarity in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, coming out onto the streets on June 2, but more significantly supporters were on the street outside the Turkish embassy in both Kyiv and Moscow as well.
Eastern Europe is now facing another period of instability with the danger of the Turkish protests spreading. Opposition movements in both Ukraine and Russia have been flagging due to the lack of enthusiasm amongst their populations. But the vivid images coming out of Turkey will at least serve to remind and highlight the problems in those countries, and could be used to fan a fresh wave of protests in sympathy for the Turkish people.
On Monday, June 3 the cyber retribution took a new direction with reports of hackers launching a major assault on government sites in support of the protests. The online anti-establishment group Anonymous also got into the game by opening up a free virtual private network (VPN) to ensure the government couldn't shut down Turkey's interest and cut off communincaton, tweeting: " For people in #Turkey free VPN access --> Username: vpnbook Password: rac3vat9 Server #1: euro1.vpnbook.com"
so much for the western press: CNN Turkey runs a documentary about penguins, while CNN US covers the riots
Muscovites come out in support of the Turkish people
police pepper stray demonstrators. Nuff said
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