The Fight for Free Speech in Turkey

A man tinkers on a piano. Around him, hundreds of people have gathered in the night, looking for a pause from the constant threat of another police attack. The unsung words float in the air; “Imagine there are no countries… Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion, too.” No song could be more suitable for the situation. The protesters have been standing their ground for over a week. “Save the Gezi Park”.”Out with Erdogan,” the Turkish Prime Minister, who wants to turn the secular country into a Muslim dictatorship. They have had enough.

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It all started as a peaceful sit-in to save one of Istanbul’s few remaining green areas, where the government had decided to build a shopping mall. But instead of initiating a dialogue, they sent riot police to assault the environmentalists with tear gas and  batons.

Suddenly, the rest of Turkey took notice. Teenagers, octogenarians, mothers, fathers, students, entrepreneurs, rich, poor, leftwing, rightwing – pretty much everyone rushed to Taksim Square to support them. The government’s behavior was just not acceptable. Tens of thousands joined the ranks in Istanbul. When the police ambushed the tent-city with water cannons and rubber bullets, things got ugly. This time, the demonstrators fought back. They burned down police cars, bulldozers, excavators and caterpillars. They demolished construction trailers and fences, and used them to build  barricades around the park.  The park became impenetrable. And the police had to retreat.

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Meanwhile, the Prime Minster Erdogan remained defiant. Blocking Twitter and Facebook and closing down any news channels who sided with the protesters, he claimed that the trouble makers were just a handful of “çapulcu“, looters. While asking everyone to stay calm, he reiterated that he was going to proceed with his plans. Overconfident, Erdogan traveled to North Africa, thinking the demonstrations would die off if left alone.

But the fire was already burning. Hundreds of thousands joined the fight in over 40 Turkish cities. It was no longer only about Gezi Park ‒ it was about freedom of the press, free speech, and perhaps most of all against Erdogan’s move towards sharia law. The Prime Minister had to go.

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On June 11, the day Eduardo and I arrived in Istanbul, the riot police moved back into Taksim Square. Throwing tear gas bombs and catapulting water, they scattered the masses by pushing them along side streets, away from the center. But as soon as they could, the protestors ran back. It was like watching a tug-of-war, but with our eyes burning from tear gas. A war zone, complete with dust-masks and helmets being sold on the streets.

Again, the people won. Erdogan made a vague promise to have a referendum regarding the future of the park, but no one believed him. So, he told the demonstrators that if they didn’t return home, he could not guarantee their safety. No one moved.

Finally, a few days later, the government went in for the kill. Thousands were arrested, another few thousands critically injured, leaving four people dead and hundreds disappeared. The barricades were demolished, tents removed and the Gezi Park shut down. It was over.

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But it wasn’t the end. Having reached no real conclusion, the protests continue, albeit in a more scattered and quieter fashion. Individual people stand in silent protest in various places across the country to fight for the right to protest. The government, in their ignorance, continues to raid houses of former protesters and arresting them for terrorism.

As outsiders, you can’t help but admire the protesters, especially after witnessing the brutal tear-gas attacks. Night after night, these heroes stood peacefully side by side on the stairs leading up to the park, ready to defend themselves in case of an attack. Only steps away, surrounding them, hundreds of police waited for a go-ahead, fingers on the trigger, tear-gas cans in their pockets and the water-cannon vans ignited.

Gezi Park may  not matter to many foreigners, after all it’s just a park in a faraway country. But the violation of freedom of speech should concern all citizens of the world. During the protests, several foreign and local media personnel became targets of police violence, including physical assaults and attacks with plastic bullets. A courageous presenter for BBC Turkey was recently accused of treason because she dared to cover the protests. Most Turkish channels completely avoided mentioning the confrontations for fear of getting fired, attacked or arrested.

And the propaganda worked. We met a taxi driver, a shop keeper and a hotel manager all expressed their hopes for the bothersome crisis to end sooner rather than later. What we don’t know, however, is if they had been brainwashed by the censored media. Or if they are radical Muslims yearning for an Islamic state with limited freedom for women and absolutely no free press.

The next presidential elections in Turkey will take place in 2014, with Erdogan as the main candidate. The future of Turkey is at stake. Will freedom win?

Only time will tell.

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