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.
“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.
“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.
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.