Fear leads to self-censorship in Turkey

“I found a nice apartment the other day, good price, but Ece says I cannot live in that building,” a Spanish expat said from the other side of the table.

“You cannot live there; it belongs to a bad man,” answered the young woman before turning her back towards her friend to say something in Turkish.

The expats sitting next to the two women looked confused.

“Are you talking about Gülen?” another one asked.

Both glared.

“‘Ssshhh! You shouldn’t say his name out loud, someone might be listening’, “Ece said, looking at the only table, apart from theirs, that was occupied.

As an outsider, the conversation seemed a little paranoid, and reminded me of “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels.

The Lord Voldemort in question is Fethullah Gülen. Once an ally of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), U.S.-based preacher Gülen is accused of running a global cult-like movement infiltrating its members into the police, civil service, judiciary and military. After a final split with the AKP at the end of 2013, the government says Gülen activated his followers to carry out last year’s July coup. But the coup attempt failed when government supporters took to the streets and faced down the plotters’ tanks.

In the 18th century, philosopher Jeremy Bentham introduced the idea of the Panopticon; a prison designed in a way that allows a guard, sitting inside a tower in the middle of the building, to observe all the prisoners in their cells. Prisoners though are unable to see whether there is an actual guard or not, so they have to assume that they are always under watch.

“A new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind,” Bentham described it.

As a metaphor, the Panopticon represents the mass surveillance people are subjected to today. Surveillance is now more opaque, but there are similarities. The watchman is the state, and the tower is invisible.

These circumstances, French philosopher Michel Foucault argued in 1975, force citizens to internalise disciplinary individuality over time, and set a self-monitoring effect: “Don’t say this”, “don’t interact with this person”, “don’t publish this on Facebook”, “Don’t live there”.

This kind of intimidation permeates Turkish society today and produces a class of docile citizens who have witnessed the fate of transgressors.

After a telephone interview with the wife of one of the teachers sacked and jailed after the coup attempt of July 2016, my interpreter refused to continue working.

‘The government could be listening. I don’t want to have a problem’, she said.

According to Freedom House, Turkey suffered the second most dramatic decline in freedom in the world in 2017, just behind the Central African Republic.

Twitter’s latest transparency report showed that Turkey also leads censorship on Social Media, with close to 2,000 removal requests.

Although in only 11 percent of the cases some content was withheld, through these means government agencies can install a sort of disciplinary fear similar to that imposed by the Panopticon, but at the society level. It is inevitable, surveillance and self-censorship walk together.

With such structure in place, the media also fails to provide a critical point of view.

In fact, the omnipresence of the system is experienced in particular by journalists in Turkey, as the country remains the world’s worst jailer for members of the press for two consecutive years.

Journalists fear asking questions, of being watched, of angering those in power. Due to that justified fear, the quality and the diversity of the information suffer, and the critical mass disappears.

Journalist Erol Önderoglu, press freedom activist and voice of Reporters Without Borders in Turkey, studies the impact of self-censorship on journalism. According to him, nobody is 100 percent safe when it comes to sharing content on social media, or writing a news story.

“We know that economic issues, or news about union’s rights or liberals, are the main issues when it comes to self-censorship among journalists,” Önderoglu said.

Internet users are exposed to arbitrary procedures for posting content or pictures on social media. “Civil servants, academics, and journalists have started to think twice before sharing any controversial content,” the activist explained.

Under these circumstances, public debate has died. “The government is no longer welcoming such contributions from the media. It is more worried about identifying why some journalists are doing journalism. They think that under the current situation journalists shouldn’t be critics, just understand and obey”, Önderoglu said.

Today, the impact of journalism is extremely limited, and journalists and human rights defenders alike are increasingly taking precautions to protect their privacy online. They are trying to blind the watchman.  

Is there a way out of this prison? A ‘secret’ tunnel, perhaps?

Actually, after creating the Panopticon, Bentham feared that it would become a tool for oppression and created the anti-Panopticon. A system in which a minister sits in an exposed room and is surrounded by a public who asks questions. The idea is that transparency holds powers accountable. Rulers should also be watched.

That has to be the ultimate role of watchdog journalism: becoming the guard who watches over those in power. But also, the role of civil society: to hold governments accountable for their actions, instead of allowing them to bully them into a docile group of people.