In one previous post titled “journalism in times of mega crises,” I pondered on the state of journalism in the current period of pandemic, during which there are restrictions on movement and the Covid-19 crisis is used as an opportunity by the states to increase surveillance and control. From the beginning, before evolving into a pandemic, the case of the virus Covid-19 came to be publicly known through a case of suppression of information in China about the onslaught of a virus resembling SARS virus. An eye doctor, who later contracted the virus from a patient and couldn’t recover from it, Li Wenliang, had been subject to police investigation for being the source of a leak about an early medical report, suspected with 8 others for “spreading false rumors”. He returned to his work after signing a letter of admonition, which he posted on his social media page. His death further triggered a public outcry on the Chinese social media, in which people demanded freedom of speech. The story of Li Wenliang, as a doctor concerned with the truth and public health, and his prosecution by a state that wants to have full monopoly on information, was at the forefront of the stories that emerged from China on this new epidemic, circulating all around the world. In short, the suppression of free speech has caused and still causing many lives and suffering around the world simply only for having delayed timely and well-informed response in other countries.
I also inquired about the physical possibilities of doing journalism when there are restrictions to mobility and what that would entail for our capacities to access information. Will it mean that the circulation of news will have to depend more on what is called “citizen journalism”? But what are the capacities of citizen journalism when it is not backed by the networks of critical journalists and also lawyers and human rights organizations, and their organizational infrastructures? There are many challenges for citizen journalism to be considered as an alternative to the system of news journalism we have. The challenges and yet the need for citizens for journalism materialized acutely in the past few days in Turkey during the Eid holiday of four days during which the whole country was on lockdown.
The Eid was not the first time there has been extensive lockdown in the country; there has been partial lockdown during weekends and extended restrictions for those +65 and -20 for weeks now. Since the physical distancing and curfews started to be implemented, a total of 173,451 penalties were issued to individuals for a fine of 3,150 ytl for each violation, by the end of May 26th, according to the statements issued by the Interior Ministry. While there are footage from all around the world, from India, UK, France, US, and Germany showing security forces using physical violence against those who violated these social restrictions in public spaces, on the streets or at parks, the leaked videos of police violence peaked during the Eid in Turkey, between May 22 and 27, when there was a total lockdown all around the country. The response to these videos has been public outcry on social media, followed by an official announcement of the launch of investigation against the police officer(s). Of course, one wonders, what happens when there are no video or photographic evidence, or when these images cannot reach social media?
Before giving examples to those “leaked” video footage during the Eid, let’s elaborate on the “public outcry.” The public outcries are marked by a widespread circulation of images and news stories about incidents on social media and news media, including a condemnation and indignation by those who circulate these images and news stories. The way these incidents framed in these news stories reveal the fault line between critical news media and the established, pro-government commercial news media in Turkey. The latter are acting as the mouthpiece of the government, through repeating official reports and announcements without any further critical investigation, and often do so in a divisive, sensationalist, click-bating tone, with racist and misogynist rhetoric depending on the topic. Yet, when images that contradict these official narratives are revealed, I believe they are not enough to tell a story on their own despite our celebration of images and their circulation on social media in the struggle against violations and for free speech.
Before the Eid, during the early days of lockdown in Turkey, a video footage of a young boy of 18 started to circulate on Twitter, the content of the footage contradicted the official reports and the news stories of the incident that appeared in the pro-government news media, which consists of a very large section of all corporate news media in Turkey. The news stories early on reported that a police officer shot a young man who was running not to be caught for violating the curfew. This took place after the government introduced an indefinite 24h curfew to those who are above 65 and those who are below the age of 20. The news stories claimed that the boy was running from the police, and was “caught” when he was shot in the leg. Then these news outlets shared the official statement by the Governor of Adana, stating that the boy was shot in the leg because the police officer stumbled and his fire arm fired by accident. According to the statement, the young man was taken to the hospital but passed away there. The pro-government press uncritically reproduced the statement of the police officer as well who claimed that he lost his balance and fell down while chasing the young man since he (police officer) was fasting. The video footage, on the other hand, was depicting a young man lying on the floor with blood on his chest and then he is being resuscitated while at the same time the paramedics are putting him on a stretcher.
The case has been followed by the bar association, lawyers and human rights organizations in the region as well as the critical media who reported that the young man, who was killed by a police officer, was a Syrian refugee who came to Turkey with his family 7 years ago and was a textile worker, Ali El Hemdan. A witness reported that El Hemdan was running to avoid being fined for violating the curfew. The penalty fee for violating social restriction measures is 3,150 ytl for an individual, most probably higher than his monthly earning. The fact that curfews for these age groups were implemented without any remedy for those who work has been another source of injustice. Faruk Bildiri, a journalist who had served as a media ombudsperson at one of those pro-government newspapers for many years until his position was terminated in 2019, kept track of the biased portrayal of the incident in pro-gov news outlets, listed and analyzed their journalistic mistakes on his blog post. As usual practice, these news outlets are reproducing the raw story that comes from the news agencies, in their case, the state-owned Anadolu Agency (AA) and the Ihlas News Agency (IHA), without any further investigation. They reproduce the statements by the governors or the governmental offices, and do not seek independent opinion or investigation, and thereby uncritically propagate the official explanation. Bildirici argues that it’s thanks to social media that the video was seen by many and the questions it raises contradicting official statements were made public. As has been the case for a long time now, when a government officer is the perpetrator of a wrongdoing, it is only after a public outcry on social media, often with the aid of a visual evidence, that a corrected statement is made. I agree with Bildirici that the presence of the video and its circulation on the social media is significant in putting pressure on the authorities to open an investigation and rectify their statements, but I also think that we should not ignore the lawyers who took upon themselves to follow up with the case and the criminal investigation, as well as the journalists and their news outlets that provide critical and investigative journalism. An image or a video is very powerful, but it doesn’t tell the names nor their stories, nor the context of the crime.
Following this infamous concerted attempt of covering up of the murder of Ali El Hemdan on April 27 by a public officer, the abuse of power and use of lethal force by the police force peaking during the Eid curfew was revealed in videos that are often taken by witnessing neighbors. Here are few of those videos depicting police violence during the Eid Holiday in Turkey where the persons were subjected to violence for violating the curfew. Sometimes the video is taken from a private CCTV (close-circuit television) camera. These cheaper surveillance systems are very common in Turkey as wireless security cameras and they are used even in small private establishments such as gorcery stores and shops, as well as homes, as a preventive measure against burglary. These cameras are mostly placed in front of the stores, recording a section of the street as well, and the video stream is accessible to the owner of the shop on the Internet.
The following video is taken at the Silahtarağa neighborhood of the city of Tekirdağ, and shows two people being detained for “resisting the police” according to the statement by the governor but were rather sitting in the garden of their house. Later, the police officers were suspended for using excessive force. The news outlet that posted the video also shared the name of the neighbor who took the video. Later, the neighbor who filmed the video from the balcony and shared it online was also assaulted by the police according to the lawyers from the bar association that was following the case. The second video shows the door to this apartment from a CCTV camera while the police are forcing their way into the apartment.
The next video is from Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul, an old low income working-class neighborhood of the city. A common aspect that is revealed in these leaked videos is that the police officers uses physical violence in impoverished neighborhoods and districts. This video shows police officers detaining two young people using physical violence. The shooting quality is low, and it is hard to see clearly to be able to recognize the people on the video. But as with other leaked videos, those who are witnessing on the windows are present with their verbal indignations, and the viewer is reminded that they are able to see things more clearly than the video depicts. So the viewer hears the reactions of those neighbors shouting to the officers for them to stop. The neighbor who took this video is heard on the footage, he is describing the action, in indignation rather than for future viewers of the video.
I will not post all the videos that were revealed and circulated on the social media during the Eid, particularly on the 25th of May. They were compiled by critical news outlets such as this one in Gazete Karınca. Some of social media users who circulate these videos on their social media accounts are journalists, lawyers, or social media users with a large number of followers. Like neighbors, they too can become the target of persecution for sharing news and images that show the public officials and hence the government in a bad light. Taking into account the number of political prisoners in Turkey, and the astonishing number of lawyers and journalists, those who continue to work to document and follow up the investigations are facing constant threat of persecution. This is why I call this act of sharing these videos “leaking” as an analogy. The term “leak” is used for cases of unsanctioned release of confidential information to the media, and the confidentiality of the information is regulated by written rules and laws in a particular establishment or governmental agency. Here, the videos are leaked to the news media, breaking the curfew, overstepping the sanctioned channels for distributing sanctioned information. But as I argued above, the pure presence of the images are not enough to provide the context and the details of the cases. It is these stories that are revealed through the efforts of journalists and lawyers as a whole that strike a chord in the public. It is also these efforts that put the pressure on officials to provide details on the ongoing investigations and revise their official statement, with the help of the pressure of the public outcry.
Following these revelations, a group of lawyers, “Lawyers for Democracy” made a statement on May 26th, calling on authorities to penalize those police officers who were involved in these acts of violence. The statement refers to the videos posted on social media showing police officers beating citizens in İstanbul (Kadıköy, Sultanbeyli, Eyüpsultan, Zeytinburnu), Tekirdağ (Çorlu), Ankara (Etimesgut), Mardin (Nusaybin), Şırnak (Cizre) and Adana, and argues that only a small number of incidents were revealed on the social media:
If there is no video recording regarding violence inflicted by the police, the police department denies the incident, issues statements saying that the police or the guards were right and used proportional force.
If video recordings were released to the public and the act of the police became undefendable, then the police department makes a statement, saying the police officers involved in the incident were dismissed from duty. While doing this, they add some expressions to these statements such that the police intervention was justified, proportional and appropriate, as was done in the cases in Adana, Nusaybin and Çorlu.
On the side of following and documenting cases of violation of rights, the Documentation Center at the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT) releases daily reports listing cases of violations in Turkey. The report that covers the Eid this year included the cases of police violence some of which are mentioned above. Through their documentation, HRFT also reported that a total of 83 people, of which 3 are children, had been subjected to physical violence, torture or abuse by police officers or guards since the curfews and physical distancing measures started to be implemented, between March 11 and May 28.
In these reports, HRFT clarifies that it surveys news media for news stories in addition to their own networks: “Daily Human Rights Reports are prepared on the information gathered by the Documentation Center from its own network and the following dailies and internet portals.” The following list contains 35 news media outlets by name. These are print & online newspapers, online-only newspapers, TV stations, news agencies, including both pro-government and dissident outlets from Turkey, and other foreign news outlets that also provide news in Turkish such as DW and BBC.
The curfews during the Eid in Turkey brought a new genre of citizen journalism. In many respects, these videos resemble the Rodney King footage from 1991, where a civilian witness filmed from his balcony a Rodney King being beaten by police officers in Los Angeles. When the court failed to charge any of the officers, this instigated riots in Los Angeles in 1992. The videos above are mostly filmed by civilians who are witnessing the incident, from their balconies from a distance. But in the recent videos from Turkey, the witness is not silent, is part of the scene as well, and is made part of the scene by the threats hurled at them. We also see other neighbors from other buildings. We hear shouts and screams. Sometimes we see other civilians enter into the frame to intervene and they are beaten as well. Sometimes they exit from the other end and one keeps hearing them without seeing anything. The film ends abruptly, jilted. No transition, no fade out. And one wonders how many incidents are not counted in a documentation center’s report or in a police investigation, because there are no witnesses nor any images. I also wonder what would have happened if there were visual documents of past atrocities? How much more effort would it have required to keep atrocities from the public sight and awareness? Atrocities such as the Paris massacre of 1961. Or, the detention of around a thousand people in a sports stadium and the following torture and humiliation on January 8, 1996 in Istanbul, an incident that remains as an untold story in the dark backdrop of the commemoration of the death of the journalist Metin Göktepe in the hands of the same police. He was one of those detained that day. What would have changed if they were seen and known? And what still keeps them in the dark?
Pinghui, Zhuang. “Who Was Li Wenliang and How Did He Become a Coronavirus ‘Hero.’” South China Morning Post (blog), February 7, 2020.
on curfews and curfew violation penalties:
dokuz8HABER. “4 günlük yasakta 35.422 kişiye ceza,” April 26, 2020.
Evrensel. “15 ilde uygulanan 4 günlük sokağa çıkma kısıtlaması sona erdi.” May 19, 2020.
dokuz8HABER. “Dört günlük sokağa çıkma yasağı sona erdi,” May 26, 2020.
dokuz8HABER. “İçişleri Bakanlığı’ndan sokağa çıkma yasağı açıklaması,” April 19, 2020.
dokuz8HABER. “Sokağa çıkma yasağında 27.828 kişiye ceza,” May 3, 2020.
dokuz8HABER. “Sokağa çıkma yasağını ihlal eden 13 bin 716 kişiye işlem uygulandı,” May 10, 2020.
on the murder of Ali El Hemdan:
Bildirici, Faruk. “Adana’da Polisin Bir Genci Vurmasında Medyanın Yanlışları.” Faruk Bildirici (blog), April 28, 2020.
Bianet – BIA News Desk. “Indictment into Killing of Ali Hemdan by a Police Officer,” May 22, 2020.
Bianet – BIA News Desk. “Investigation into Police Intervention for ‘Violating Coronavirus Curfew,’” May 25, 2020.
Pekal, Volkan. “Polis kurşunuyla can veren mülteci Ali El Hemdan 20 yaş altı işçi çıktı!” Evrensel.net, April 28, 2020.
Bianet – BIA News Desk. “Police Have No Authority to Shoot and Kill,” April 20, 2020. .
Bianet – BIA News Desk. “Police Officer Who Shot One Person to Death in Adana Arrested,” April 28, 2020.
Gazete Karınca. “Suriyeli genç ‘dur’ ihtarına uymadı diye öldürüldü, vuran polis tutuklandı,” April 28, 2020.
Topçu, Elmas. “Suriyeli genç hedef alınarak kalbinden vuruldu.” DW.COM (blog), April 28, 2020.
on censorship, media and political prisoners in Turkey
Committee to Protect Journalists. “China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt Are World’s Worst Jailers of Journalists.” Accessed June 1, 2020.
McKernan, Bethan, and Beril Eski. “Outrage over Denial of Amnesty for Turkish Political Prisoners.” The Guardian, March 31, 2020, sec. World news.
RSF. “Regulators Gradually Imposing Official Line Monopoly on Turkey’s Media | Reporters without Borders,” May 22, 2020.
Bianet – BIA News Desk. “Taylan Kulaçoğlu Arrested,” May 21, 2020.
On police violence during Eid in Turkey:
Mezopotamya Ajansı. “82 Günde 83 Kişi Şiddete Uğradı.” News Agency, June 1, 2020.
Hrft, Tihv. “23 – 27 May 2020 HRFT Documentation Center Daily Human Rights Report.” Accessed June 1, 2020.
Bianet – BIA News Desk. “Investigation into Police Intervention for ‘Violating Coronavirus Curfew,’” May 25, 2020.
Bianet – BIA News Desk. “Lawyers for Democracy: Latest Incidents of Police Violence Caused by Impunity,” May 26, 2020.
Gazete Emek. “Zeytinburnu’ndaki polis şiddetine ilişkin Emniyetten açıklama: Alkollüydüler!” May 25, 2020.