Social media offers last resort for Turks seeking justice

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) said it was a foreign-backed conspiracy, but when millions of Turks took the streets to demonstrate against the government in the June 2013 Gezi Park protests, social media was a prime mover in bringing protesters to the streets.

The protests demonstrated social media’s power as a means to gather support for issues, but also served as a wake-up call for the government, which has since cracked down to the extent that overtly political criticism posted on social media is apt to land users in jail.

Yet these social media sites still have the power to draw the attention of millions to unpalatable truths, and have become a last recourse for Turks whose search for justice is obstructed on official channels and ignored by the traditional media.

This was the case for Rabia Naz Vatan, an 11-year-old girl who died under suspicious circumstances last year. Police and the prosecutor’s office called her death a suicide, but her father believes she was hit by a car whose driver was well enough connected for local authorities to cover it up.

Only when Vatan’s father brought the case to a citizen journalist on Twitter last month, earning thousands of shares, did nationwide media channels begin paying attention – so much so that Turkey’s interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, has taken a personal interest in the investigation.

This was not the first time a social media campaign for justice provoked a response from senior government figures. In February 2015, 19-year-old Özgecan Aslan was murdered after boarding a minibus as she struggled to fight off the driver’s attempted rape.

Aslan’s story spread like wildfire on social media, triggering protests in her native city of Tarsus and across Turkey. Once again, thousands of Turks took the streets, this time to demand justice for a girl who became an emblem of the epidemic of violence faced by women in Turkey. The protests included implicit condemnation of the government’s policies, many from the same rights groups that had been active during Gezi Park.

Support for this cause, however, crossed political lines. The rage felt towards Aslan’s killer was so widespread and so profound that when he was murdered in prison in April 2016, no cemeteries were prepared to inter his body. After five days, there was no option but to secret the corpse out of the prison morgue and bury it at an undisclosed location.

For Erkan Saka, an academic specialising in social media at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, the arrival of social media has given citizens a new means to tackle judicial iniquities, which have a long history in Turkey.

“The rise of social media literacy triggers more effective campaigning,” he told Ahval. In the case of Aslan, that campaign made it to the world’s third highest trending topic in February 2015 with around 440,000 tweets, drawing global support from outspoken celebrities like the British actress Emma Watson.

The Aslan murder shone a spotlight on what Saka calls an increase in “patriarchal and anti-women discourses among (Turkish) authorities,” something he suggests could make it harder to seek justice within the judicial system.

Sure enough, after initial government messages of sympathy about Aslan, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan soon changed his tone. “They (feminists) get angry with us when we say God entrusted women to men,” Erdoğan said the week after her killing.

The same misogyny made its way to the courtroom in February during the first hearing of the Şule Çet rape-murder trial, another case brought to widespread public attention through social media.

Çet, a 23-year-old student, fell from the 20th storey of her boss’s office in an Ankara skyscraper in May 2018. Her death was initially dismissed as a suicide. Only after months of online campaigning by Çet’s friends were the two men she was with that night – her boss and one of his friends – charged with her rape and murder, having twice been questioned and released.

The defence team came to the hearing determined to focus on the victim’s conduct – stressing that she had not been a virgin and that she had drunk alcohol. But a defence lawyer also broke away from the case at hand at one point to pull out his telephone and complain to the judge about the social media campaign demanding justice for Çet.

“They’re trying to create a sensation by sharing false information by social media,” the lawyer said, referring to Çet’s friends and relatives, who had brought the #suleceticinadalet (#justiceforsulecet) hashtag to the top of the country’s trending topics.

All this was reported from the courthouse by Çet’s friends as it happened, live on the Justice for Şule Çet Twitter account. It was a moment that encapsulated the shift social media has brought to Turks’ relationship with the judiciary.

“The thing is, masculine legal culture in Turkey is more obvious and difficult to conceal in femicide cases than ever,” said Near East University legal scholar Eylem Ümit Atılgan, who has found during extensive fieldwork in Turkey that courts consistently find ways to reduce sentencing of male defendants in cases of femicide.

Social media has provided an outlet for activists and civil society groups to bring incidents onto the political agenda and give voice to victims, Atılgan said, and this could potentially provide an impetus to legislators to make much-needed changes.

This is not a one-way street – ask the 666 people detained for social media posts criticising Turkey’s military operation in northwest Syria early last year, the 1,656 users arrested for posts in the summer of 2016, when the July 15 coup attempt took place, or the thousands prosecuted for anti-government posts, including insulting Erdoğan, since the Gezi Park protests.

Fittingly, when a judge was transferred after acquitting one defendant charged with the crime of insulting the president in March, he turned to social media to complain that he had been targeted with punishment for political reasons.

“Social media has been both an opportunity and a threat for rights and freedoms. It’s an opportunity because it allows people to express themselves without going through any mediator,” lawyer and human rights activist Orhan Kemal Cengiz told Ahval.

“But it’s a threat because you have to get to your point in a very limited number of characters. You can’t ask for your sentences to be read in a clear context, as you would in a written article. So, right now, there’s been an explosion in the number of people investigated or punished for what they share on social media,” he said.

Nevertheless, with media rights groups estimating that 90 percent of Turkey’s media by circulation is now in the government’s hands, the internet serves for many as the only way to get their story out.

“It is now impossible to print news stories in the mainstream news outlets that imply fault lies with the government,” Cengiz said.

“When you think of how recent events like train accidents or collapsing buildings have been reported, you can see this very clearly. Either no one is held responsible, or the people at the lowest rung of the ladder take the blame. When there is no possibility to express oneself in the traditional print and television media, social media becomes the only means of expression, and that’s what we have in Turkey,” he said.

This was the situation faced by Misra Öz Sel when her nine-year-old son, Oğuz Arda Sel, and husband, Hakan Sel, were among 24 passengers killed when a train derailed in northwest Turkey in July 2018.

Turkey’s broadcasting authorities issued a temporary ban on reporting the train disaster, which was blamed on adverse weather conditions.

It was one of two train derailments in Turkey in 2018, the other taking place in Ankara in December. Sel campaigned for months on social media for government accountability: no high-level officials were held responsible for either crash for months, until the director of Turkey’s state railways, İsa Apaydın was dismissed from his position last month.

Sel believes the disasters were the result of neglect, and told Ahval in February that she would continue her campaign until officials responsible for the train lines, including Apaydın and former transport minister Ahmet Arslan, were tried in court.

By endorsing the violent police interventions against the women marching for International Women’s Day on March 8, the government has made clear that it will tolerate neither public displays of dissent, nor any expression of political disagreement.  

“The political climate in Turkey restricts democratic demonstration, so it seems social media campaigns will continue as long as unjust proceedings in femicide cases continue,” said Atılgan.

“There is a young, well educated, urban community composed of people angry about masculine legal culture and impunity in femicide and violence against women cases, and this community is active in social media. That says to me there are many more feminist-advocating social media campaigns to come,” she said.