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Chained Reaction: Freedom of Expression, Historical Censorship and Opposition Movements

Saturday Mothers of Turkey, on their 422th gathering, commemorated 220 Armenian intellectuals detained and vanished by the order of Ottoman officials in 1915.

Saturday Mothers of Turkey, on their 422th gathering, commemorated 220 Armenian intellectuals detained and vanished by the order of Ottoman officials in 1915. Image taken from İstanbul – BIA News Desk.


A number of interrelated observations are made by thinkers who want to form an opposition movement in Turkey, which would both develop a thought/praxis that can propose definitions, analyses and solutions to real problems, and appeal to the wider masses. Oft-repeated, and sometimes tainted with pessimism, I would like to begin by summarizing these observations:

a) The thought and praxis of opposition parties/movements, whether small or large, although different in terms of content on appearance, does not differ in form, style or approach from that of the ruling party. This is a problem we confront not only in the outlines of their policies, but also, and perhaps as a more burning issue, in their internal organization and communication.

b) There is a tendency to act as if the present government is the source of all current problems. (The trouble is, the same tendency existed in the previous period, and the one before, and the...)

c) 'A return to the past' is frequently proposed as an alternative. (Yet what exactly this past, or ancien régime, is or was, remains unclear.)

Freedom of Expression

The list could go on, additions could be made to each argument. In this article, I will try to focus on a fundamental issue that lies at the heart of this state of affairs, namely, access to information. The right and freedom to access to information is directly related to the freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is generally perceived as a freedom related to expressing views here and now, and there are many obstacles in front of immediate freedom of expression in Turkey that deserve long debate, however, the problems I listed briefly above indicate that the issue runs deeper, and that we need to look at the formation stage of views – both those of the government and opposition – and how their structure and style takes shape. In my previous blog I discussed how a number of issues the right to the city, environmental consciousness, the protection and expression of identities, bottom-up administration as opposed to top-down administration, and the coexistence of different ideas within the social movement – that were previously trivialized and often not even considered as subject matter of politics assumed a leading position both in thought and practice during the Gezi resistance, and that this had initiated a critical transformation. However, it would be unfair to expect this transformation to spread across a wider, and more permanent field of opposition, and it would also mean overlooking the concrete obstacles that stand in the way of such a development. We need to look at these obstacles that prevent the expansion of the civilian field.

Censorship and Disinformation

The Gezi resistance grew around a just cause, many different sections of society took part in the resistance, and it was said that many people were becoming politicized for the first time. As for the government's/state's response to Gezi, widespread and systematic disinformation regarding the events was a method applied by the authorities that drew an incredulous reaction perhaps as much as intense police violence. Fabricated stories about protesters attacking a woman wearing a headscarf in the Kabataş district of Istanbul, or protesters entering a mosque with their muddy shoes caused great aggrievement among protestors, of course, protestors also made fun of these slapdash, inconsistent stories, but when the pro-government mainstream press presented these claims as unquestionable facts, and refused to retreat even when concrete evidence proved otherwise, the sense of injustice was exacerbated.

The protection of police violence with a shield of impunity on the one hand, and this incessant wave of disinformation on the other, with the addition of large-scale corruption scandals that emerged in the months following Gezi – which the government tried to repel and cover up with similar disinformation methods – and repeated failures in a foreign policy based on a faux-heroic discourse and shady collaborations are the most recent achievements of the current government. At this point, and in contrast to the traditional press that is to a large extent loyal to the government's line, the role of the Internet and social media, where information can circulate freely, in providing information and critique is invaluable. The question, then, is this: Is this landscape a new one? Does this almost complete disregard, distortion and falsification of information, accompanied by systematic persecution against those who want to access and propagate information constitute a nightmare that Turkey has faced for the first time during what the government has proudly coined the era of a 'New Turkey'?

Official history

In modern nation-states, national identity is shaped around a narrative of official history, and let us not fool ourselves, it is not possible to claim that even states considered most economically and socially 'developed' have managed to face all the terrible pages in their history, and treat all minorities and identities in an equal manner. As the protests that began in the USA following the protection of the police officer responsible of Mike Brown's death grow, in Turkey today, the court case of Ali İsmail Korkmaz, murdered in Eskişehir by the police during the Gezi resistance continues under shameful circumstances. There is a clue for the purpose of this article in the fact that while pro-government mainstream media in Turkey remains completely silent regarding the trial of Ali İsmail Korkmaz, or the trials of other protestors murdered or injured during Gezi, it provides wide coverage of the protests in the USA as if to say, "See, it happens over there, too."

We could extend the list of trials the mainstream media never covers: The cases of the Saturday Mothers, who gathered for the 500th week in Galatasaray Square in Istanbul last month, are among them. The Saturday Mothers, formed by the relatives of people who lost their lives in around 800 cases of forced disappearance that took place between 1992 and 1996, were presented with the Hrant Dink Award last year: Hrant Dink was an Armenian journalist and leading intellectual who was murdered in 2007 in Istanbul, in front of Agos, the newspaper he founded, and his assassination is also among cases which remain unresolved. When the Saturday Mothers, and those who stand in solidarity with them, meet every week, they do not only commemorate and carry the images of their own relatives, but also of many other people who lost their lives because of state violence, including the Armenian intellectuals who were summoned from their homes on 24 April 1915, that is recognized as the date the Armenian Genocide began, and murdered; Mustafa Suphi, the leader of the Communist Party of Turkey, and his comrades, who were murdered in 1921, and the author Sabahattin Ali, who was murdered in 1948, at the Bulgarian border.

The commemorations carried out by the Saturday Mothers with stories, photographs and the participation of people from different generations point to a different history, a history radically different from the official history that began to take shape before the establishment of the nation-state, and was finalized within a rigid discourse in the Republican period and imposed upon the public as the one and only version of history beginning from childhood through the system of national education. One could say that certain adjustments have been made to this narrative during the terms of different governments, but these adjustments are defined and restricted by a struggle for political power and proximity to the state. The Union and Progress Party was persecuted by and eventually dethroned Sultan Abdul Hamid II, however, Talat Pasha, one of the party's leaders, once boasted, regarding the Armenian Genocide, that he had "in 3 months sorted out a problem Abdul Hamid could not in 30 years" thus exposing the continuity of their policy. The current President Tayyip Erdoğan, during his term as Prime Minister, once took part in journalist Mehmet Barlas' television programme, where, eager to blame the CHP – the former ruling party, and the main opposition during his term – for all past evil, included the September 6–7 1955 Istanbul Pogrom against minorities, which was planned and implemented by the state, among the crimes of the CHP. When Barlas hesitantly whispered that the Pogrom had taken place during the term of the Democrat Party led by Prime Minister Adnan Menderes – often proudly named by Erdoğan as his party's political predecessor – an uneasy silence pervaded the studio.

Today, the pressure and control the state and government exert over information is broadening beyond the most critical and central field of history. In addition to the imposition of the narrative of official history, both the institutions and content of modern education and the press face censorship, or distortion. This is not a new process; it is the continuation of and a new stage in a restriction that has been in force for a long time. Censorship targets an increasingly wider field, from school course books to the publishing sector, and from traditional media to the Internet. In recent days, we have witnessed the prohibition of the entry of popular comics magazines into prisons, the blockage of access to the Vagina article of Vikipedi, the Turkish Wikipedia, and a blanket ban in the press on reports regarding the four ex-cabinet ministers involved in the corruption scandal.

There is a direct connection between the deletion of information carried out by official history and these more current processes, and this connection needs to be indicated. Real democracy does not take root when what is said to be a bad or inaccurate narrative by one group of people is replaced by what is said to be a good and correct narrative by another, it is established only when all obstacles before access to information are lifted for all citizens, and especially that information they will refer to when forming their identity, history, and world. In our current age, when material restrictions regarding access to information are being lifted thanks to new means of communication, in order to strengthen this awareness that will take shape around the freedom of expression and the right to access to knowledge, we must expose censorship applied not only today, but in the past, too. Opposition movements can then decide which of their current views and practices they will leave aside, and which of them they will carry into the future.

The views and opinions published here mirror the principles of academic freedom and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the L'Internationale confederation and its members.