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Turks turn to Twitter as Erdogan muzzles traditional media

With journalistic freedom diminishing in Turkey, Twitter has emerged as a powerful work-around for independent reporters.

By Alexander Christie-MillerCorrespondent / July 23, 2012

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin (not pictured) in the Kremlin in Moscow, July 18.

Sergei Karpukhin/AP

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Istanbul, Turkey

When Turkish journalist Serdar Akinan awoke last December to find his Twitter feed abuzz with rumors of a "massacre" in the country’s southeast, he naturally switched on the television. When he flicked through the channels and found nothing but the usual grind of daily news, he called his friends at the TV stations.

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“They said it was true; they had pictures,” Akinan recalls. “But their editors wouldn’t air them because they were waiting for an explanation from the government.”

In the end, it was more than 12 hours before mainstream media reported the news that Turkey’s military had killed 34 of its own civilians in a botched airstrike near the Kurdish village of Uludere on the Iraqi border. By the time the first reports aired – cautiously sticking to government statements – Akinan, a newspaper columnist, had flown to Uludere, and was tweeting images of the funerals to his 80,000 followers.

“It was viral, people started to retweet my pictures,” says Akinan. “The conventional media was helpless, they couldn’t hide the photos any more.”

With Turkey mulling further curbs on already limited press freedom, Akinan’s story illustrates how Twitter is emerging as a powerful tool to bypass – and discredit – the country’s muzzled news outlets. 

“We have a real news alternative with social media,” says Ozgur Uckan, a professor of economics at the communications faculty of Istanbul’s Bilgi University. “Twitter particularly is having a big impact on freedom of information.” 

Turkey already has more journalists in prison than Iran and China, mostly on dubious charges of "terrorism." It is also ranked 148th out of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2011-2012 Press Freedom Index. More curbs may be coming: This month lawmakers from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) said they were considering introducing changes to press laws that could restrict reports on grounds of "disrupting public morality." 

Meanwhile, Turkey now ranks 11th in the world for Twitter usage, according to Semiocast, a company specializing in digital analytics.

Uptake of social media is driven by Turkey's increasingly tech-savvy population. Around a quarter of the country's cell phone users own a smart phone, the second highest rate in Central and Eastern Europe, according to market research company GfK.

Last year, frustrated by the media’s coverage of a controversial trial in which several journalists were imprisoned, 20-year-old Engin Onder and three friends started going to hearings themselves.

“We need a platform to receive unfiltered news,” says Mr. Onder, a communications design student at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University.

“What we heard in the courtroom wasn’t in the mainstream media,” he says. “You see biased approaches, they manipulate the speeches given in the courtroom.”

The group set up a twitter account, @140journos, specifically to cover stories ignored in the media. Inspired by the role of Twitter in exposing the silence of the traditional media, they are now designing a smart phone application to allow users to become newsgatherers.

Media grows more timid

The surge in social media usage comes at a time when the mainstream media is becoming increasingly unwilling to take on controversial stories. 

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