Turkey: A “show trial” against peaceful Gezi activists

Turkey: A “show trial” against peaceful Gezi activists

Activists involved in the organization of the first Gezi park protests in Turkey are currently standing trial, which Amnesty International describes as “a vindictive, politically motivated show trial without a shred of evidence of actual crimes.”

Twenty-six members of the Taksim Solidarity Movement, an umbrella organization composed of 128 civil society groups including architects’ associations, unions, and feminist groups, are facing up to twenty-nine years in jail. Some of the defendants are charged with forming a criminal organisation, disrupting public order, and organizing “illegal” protests via social media. In fact, “the prosecution case is based largely on tweets posted from the Taksim Solidarity Twitter account and from the defendants’ individual accounts.” In these tweets, Taksim Solidarity publicly denounces excessive police violence and calls for peaceful protests.

Human rights organizations in solidarity with activists from Turkey

Amnesty International’s Andrew Gardner stated in a news conference that “The indictment is completely without evidence of a crime, in the understanding of international human rights law and Turkey’s own laws…The right to peaceful assembly is being put on trial.” The organization started a support campaign for Gezi Park activists. Human Rights Watch also reminded Turkey of its “obligation to uphold the rights to nonviolent assembly, association, and free speech.” In addition, many human rights organizations around the world are calling for legal proceedings against those who are responsible for the violence against protesters.

Remembering #GeziParki

What started out as a modest gathering of environmentalists opposing the destruction of the public Gezi Park located in Taksim, at the heart of Istanbul, #Gezi became a major movement that defined the summer of 2013 for Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of people of all ages attended the protests. This drew global attention on the movement via traditional news reporting as well as global social media campaigns that created a sense of solidarity with the Gezi spirit. The widespread utilization of social media throughout the protests and its consequent effects illustrate the importance of a free and open internet promoting democratic freedoms.

A year after social media-inspired grassroots protests swept the streets of several Turkish cities, it’s clear that #GeziPark had a clear impact on the politics and dynamics of political dissent. Even as Prime Minister Erdogan’s government engaged in ever more repressive internet policies and has demonized social media calling it “the worst menace to the society,” online dissent continues its key role in Turkey’s sociopolitical discourse.

Analyzing what happened on the ground last summer is useful in understanding the relationship between Gezi and Turkish government’s increased focus on restricting online freedoms and use of such “show trials.” The internet indeed proved to be a major facilitator of public participation throughout the Gezi movement. In the absence of mainstream reporting from and about the protests that were taking place in major cities throughout Turkey and the government’s efforts to suppress information, citizen journalism via social media became the de facto communication medium of protesters and the public at large.

NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) laboratory revealed how Twitter was uniquely “being used to spread information about the demonstrations from the ground.” According to the statistics, “around 90% of all geolocated tweets were coming from within Turkey, and 50% from within Istanbul,” showing that the majority of these tweets were actual coordination mechanisms used by protestors. Parallel to this mechanism born during Gezi, protesters repeatedly organized other mass demonstrations via social media such as the funeral of Berkin Elvan, a 15-year old child who died in March after being hit in the head by a tear gas canister on his way to buying bread during the Gezi protests.

The response to the media blackout surrounding the Gezi protests gave rise to diverse and sustainable forms of online citizen journalism that are still impacting the Turkish political landscape. One example of this is the Istanbul-based Institute of Creative Minds’ “counter media movement” titled 140 journos, which uses verified citizen reporting as its primary source material. The project that was started in early 2012 now has around 51,000 followers on Twitter. The project served as a key source for reliable news during last summer’s Gezi protests via developing an organized network of users, collectively generating verifiable content on site. Interestingly, this platform was also widely used during the March 2014 local elections to ensure the fairness of the voting system, despite the fact that Twitter was officially banned. In a way, Gezi directly raised awareness to achieving grassroots socialization and public education via social media networks. It also provided the added benifit of increasing technological adaptability as everybody knew or soon learned to fix the DNS settings to circumvent various censorships. All of this sparked an increasingly authoritarian response from the Turkish government.

Government’s authoritarian response

As a response to the protests, Prime Minister Erdogan’s government has engaged in an ongoing discourse of defamation of activists, social media outlets and journalists. As a recent example, a CNN reporter was detained on air by the Turkish police while covering the anniversary of the start of the protests. Prime Minister Erdogan supported the action, calling the journalist an “agent” who was “caught red-handed.”

In the months and weeks that lead up to the first anniversary last weekend, a feeling of nostalgia and mourning for victims of police violence emerged amongst civil society, while a sense of increasing paranoia was evident in the actions and discourses of government officials. Most notably, the Turkish government has increased restrictive policies on internet governance. In February 2014, nearly seven years after the introduction of “the Internet Law of Turkey” (Law No. 5651), two omnibus bills were passed amending the law. The changes basically allow the existing legislation to be used to justify wider online bans and facilitate censorship. These changes provided the President of Turkey’s Telecommunications Communication Presidency (TIB) increased powers, while imposing mandatory membership in the newly formed association of Internet Service Providers on all internet providers working in Turkey.

Looking at today

During the first-year anniversary of the start of the protests, major cities such as Istanbul and Ankara became subject to excessive police control, blocked roads, and suspended public transportation. As usual, there was tear gas and water canons, as well as arrests and detainments. Indeed, on the streets of Turkey the state’s response has been more authoritarian than ever, defined as “intolerable” by the The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights.

Following last month’s ruling by the country’s top court ordering the blanket ban on YouTube be lifted as it violates freedom of speech, the site was recently unblocked after 67 days of censorship. However, given the country’s recent passage of restrictive internet laws, censorship may occur again especially around upcoming presidential elections in August 2014.

Gezi protests should be seen as an example of how access to a free and open internet enables direct political participation by citizens on the street and online. This was Turkey’s concrete gain from the Gezi protests, which will hopefully be sustained in the future despite the government’s increasingly authoritarian policies and practices.