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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.

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“It’s become normal to praise the government in the media, and criticism has become unacceptable,” says Ece Temelkuran, a columnist who earlier this year lost her job at the Habertürk newspaper after she was stridently critical of the Uludere killings.

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Since the AKP was elected in 2002, several formerly taboo topics are now freely discussed, including issues relating to the restive Kurdish minority, and the systematic massacres of Turkey's Armenian population in 1915.

Temelkuran and others, however, claim that there are new taboos, including criticism of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In recent months a string of prominent journalists have, like Ms. Temelkuran, been fired after criticizing Mr. Erdogan or his government.

Most recently, in May, pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak fired columnist Ali Akel after he wrote an article in which he also strongly criticized the prime minister’s handling of the Uludere tragedy.

It was not always like this. In the early years of AKP, much of the country’s media was strongly critical of the government.

Turkey’s news organizations have long been owned by a handful of corporate empires with wide business interests. Most of these were initially hostile to the AKP, whose Islamist origins placed it in stark opposition to what was then a staunchly secular establishment.

But as Erdogan has cemented his grip on power, he has become less tolerant of criticism, and Turkey’s media barons now antagonize him at their peril.

In 2009, the AKP appeared to make an example of the largest media empire, the Dogan group, by hitting its parent company with a $3.8 billion tax fine. Many regarded the fine as a retribution for the Dogan media’s relentless coverage of a corruption scandal allegedly involving members of the AKP.

“It’s very easy to control the media now. The government either buys them or threatens them,” says Akinan.

Many following Turkish tweets

As the Uludere tragedy coverage showed, Twitter has already developed into a powerful tool for disseminating news. Turkish journalists' Twitter followings often dwarf those of their foreign counterparts, even in countries where usage far outstrips Turkey’s.

Temelkuran has more than 300,000 followers, outstripping almost all the most prominent TV and print journalists in the UK, which has nearly four times as many Twitter users as Turkey.

“It’s crazy,” says Akinan, who now has more than 100,000 followers. “It’s not like I’m a celebrity or a beautiful woman posting pictures of myself. I’m a journalist.”

Professor Uckan says that whilst Turks may not trust their newspapers and television stations, they often do trust the reporters who work for them.

“People don’t see the mainstream media as a source of real news, but they respect a lot of journalists and follow them on Twitter, hoping to get the news that they can’t publish in their newspapers.”

Turkey’s courts, who are notoriously aggressive in applying the country’s restrictive freedom of expression laws, are waking up to the trend.

In the most prominent case so far involving Twitter, the Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say was last month charged with "publicly insulting religious values adopted by a part of the nation" for comments he made on Twitter. He could face 18 months in prison if convicted for publicly citing a verse by 11th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam that ridiculed the Islamic notion of paradise.

Despite the growing restrictions, most people in the industry believe the role of social media will continue to grow, particularly among Turkey’s young population – half of which is under the age of 29.

“It’s changing people’s thinking,” Akinan believes. “The government will keep controlling the national media, but social media is uncontrollable, and is getting more powerful day by day.”

Citing the role of social media in last year’s Arab uprisings, Akinan believes it could have a similar impact on Turkey’s Kurds.

“You won’t see Tahrir Square in Istanbul,” he says, “But you could see it in Diyarbakir [the largest Kurdish city in Turkey’s southeast].”


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