Gezi Park Has Brought Down Illusion Of Turkish Democracy

Having carefully crafted the Turkish state as it is over the past 11 years, the Justice and Development Party is now seeing the error in its dealings with the media following its lack of coverage of Gezi Park protests.

al-monitor Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (C) greets members of his ruling Justice and Development Party during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, June 25, 2013 Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.

Topics covered

turkish politics, recep tayyip erdogan, gezi park istanbul, democracy

Jun 26, 2013

I will be returning to Turkey this week after living in London for a year. I realized in that time that in Turkey, when assessing a major event, we first get used to it, then get bored with it, and then incorporate into our daily lives. Many attitudes and narratives that would be deemed unusual in democratic countries have thus become a part of our lifestyle.

Whenever you talk about politics in Turkey it always ends up being about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But this is not only the case in conversations about politics — he is also the only one dealing with the Kurdish issue and what to do with some trees in a park. From developments in Middle East peace efforts, to objecting to a statue in the city of Kars and having it removed, it is Erdogan who expresses an opinion, takes a position and follows through with it. This is not normal in any developed democracy. To equip a leader with such wide-reaching powers first of all endangers the charisma of the leader, in addition to wearing him out needlessly. This also brings him into confrontation with different segments of society that he would never otherwise interact with.

When you look at it from abroad, Turkey is perceived in literal translation as "Erdogan's land.” This is not only the outcome of the Gezi Park events. That was an accumulation that not only blemished all perceptions of Turkey, but also relegated it to a lower league of democracy. When you look from outside, there is but one definition of a government built upon a single man.

Also looking from the outside, another reality that hits you is how the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) misguided policy is actually causing the most damage to  the AKP itself. In no country governed by true democracy does one find a prime minister who talks as much and is covered live by so many news channels at length. Not only his party's parliamentary group meetings on Tuesdays, but all the ceremonies he attends and all the meetings he participates in are aired live by dozens of news channels. Much of what he says is not newsworthy. Some channels cover him voluntarily and some out of fear of staying out of the herd. Naturally, a speech at Erzurum appealing only to the perceptions and sentiments of that locality have different resonance in London. Never mind the negative vibes of seeing the leader speak several times in one day, hours on end, the contents of his words become routine and meaningless.

In its 11-year rule the AKP has established its own media. This is normal. What is not normal is its attempt to reshape the mainstream media to toe the AKP line. In a changing Turkey, it was only normal for the media to also change. But is wrong for the AKP, instead of emphasizing freedoms and values, to try to impose its likes and dislikes on the media.

In this process, the prime minister chose to deal with journalists he personally selected. He tried to develop his media strategy not through principled journalists who have gained confidence of the public but with lower-profile journalists he personally liked. In such a bubble, realities become secondary and hourlong interviews and chats become meaningless.  The trust in the media transferred from mainstream media to opposition channels, marginal outlets and social media. The silence of the media during the Gezi protests and leaving the field to social media was but one outcome of this misguided strategy.

International media that entered the picture at this point upended the AKP's classic media vision. It was perfectly normal for Erdogan to be shocked when he compared the foreign media's treatment of news, their outspokenness, their disregard for self-censorship and not feeling they owe anything to anybody with the Turkish media that is subject to strict controls.

Many news pieces and comments that are considered normal in the UK, the US and Germany are dismissed as "foreign conspiracies" in Turkey. After a year of observing of how the British media operates, I can authoritatively say that this misguided strategy will come around and hit the AKP again.

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