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New perspectives on free expression in Turkey during Covid-19

In Turkey during the pandemic hundreds of students have been forced to move back home to their families, entailing a risk for those who have other values than their parents or are otherwise exposed in their homes. Many students on programmes where students need to have an income on the side, have lost their jobs. And all at once, in order to take part in the tuition, it is necessary to have one’s own computer, which far from everyone can afford. And while the physical meeting places disappear, the censorship on social media increases. The Civic Space Studies Association works to enhance political engagement and activism at Turkish universities and its assistant manager, the postgraduate student Zeynep Serinkaya-Winter, describes the impact of the corona pandemic in Turkey from a student’s perspective.

Credits Text: Zeynep Serinkaya Winter Photo: Denef Huvaj August 12 2020

Turkey has a long history of strong student movements, passing down the torch to new cohorts each year, with a growing number of diversified claims and actors. For millions of students from different walks of life, the campus is not only the main public space where you exchange ideas, but also the outlet through which the students express their identities, demands, hopes and ideas. From violent police intervention against on campus protests, to the use of state services such as dormitories and scholarships as a political instrument, the campus is also the nexus of the conflict between repressive policies, surveillance, and control.

The campus is also where we learn to be activists by the very practice of existing with diverse identities in an otherwise stifling environment; Feminists, LGBTI+ activists, professional associations, various political groups, disabled activists, human rights activists, advocates of freedom of expression and a myriad other actors grow on the fertile ground of campuses.

Thus, for us, protecting the freedoms and rights of students equals to sustaining academic freedom, freedom of expression and civil society itself all at once.

When the COVID19 pandemic struck Turkey, the already precarious conditions of students worsened. The economic precarity of being a student might mean that you find yourself stripped from the exercise of the right to freedom of expression due to structural inequalities.

The pandemic deepened these inequalities, especially under strict quarantine measures.

University campuses were shut down as a part of the measures against the contagion. Hundreds of thousands of students were uprooted from their dormitories as well as their campuses, returning to their family homes. The parental home can be a toxic environment if you are a woman, if you have a non-gender conforming identity – or if you have different political opinions than that of your family and neighbors.

Many students have been evacuated overnight from their dorms, following a decision to use the dormitories as quarantine spaces where Turkish citizens returning from abroad are to stay for fourteen days. This action was so abrupt that the students had to leave most of their belongings behind. Those without any family homes to return to, or means to afford rent are facing dire accommodation problems. Following the pandemic, most of the service industry in Turkey halted its activities due to the measures and curfews. Many of the establishments students rely on for their daily routine were shut down indefinitely. For many, low payed, often informal jobs are the main source of livelihood, as the state scholarships are far from being sufficient means.[1] These students have now suddenly found themselves unemployed. A growing number of parents are also economically precarious; thus the students’ support mechanisms are weaker in the face of economic deterioration. Some students have already been in confinement before the pandemic. The imprisoned students, the current number we have no data for, face serious health risks in prison.[2] They have already lost their right to education, and as consequences from the pandemic, they have been deprived of their right to see their lawyers and family; while having to pay exorbitant prices for soap, without access to protective gear in overcrowded cells.

In best case, even if you are in a safe environment as a student, you are find yourself detached from the fertile ground that feeds you socially, culturally and academically; confined to the virtual space your bandwidth allows. For many, that bandwidth is quite limited and unaffordable; meaning you can only continue your education online and express yourself among your social groups if you have a laptop, a modem, and an internet subscription. Even when you can afford these tools you are facing the violation of your privacy, self-censorship of your friends and your faculty due to the rather intrusive institutional practices of class surveillance and recording.

All in all, as a student in Turkey, even if you have the means to protect your health and stay in a safe place, your access to a space where you can express yourself has considerably shrunk.

Not having access to freedom of expression might have fatal consequences: If the scientists and academics face prosecution when they share the data of their research, if they cannot freely discuss how to improve government policies, treatment of patients and the improvement of social conditions in the aftermath of the pandemic are seriously endangered.

Therefore, academic freedom, freedom of press and freedom of speech do not stand alone; they feed into each other. Aside from its ailing powers freedom of expression is vital for self-expression and social bonding: In physical isolation, we feel an even more intense need to connect, especially if you are a member of a vulnerable group. Virtual connections and social networks can help alleviate this issue, but how free is expression in social media in Turkey? While the visibility of activism is ever more valuable, it’s a double-edged sword: Visibility means vulnerability with regards to surveillance technologies, perhaps greater due to the sheer volume of our current social media interactions. While many people in Turkey rely on social media to be who they are publicly, they face imprisonment for expressing their opinions; and the pandemic is no hurdle against the torrent of detentions. Over the month of April, 229 in people in Turkey were detained, and 616 were identified as suspects based on their social media posts.[3]

In addition, a new law is now in effect which requires the social media platforms to have a representative in Turkey and to store data locally.[4] The law will also enable the judiciary to force the platforms to remove certain content. Experts warn that the new law will ensure wider government control and runs the serious risk of government surveillance over personal data.[5]

But this does not mean activists will back down. We are always strengthened by the perseverance and determination of the young activists, always devising new ways and means to build a common ground and to recruit new social actors for their cause. The pandemic did not stop civil society in Turkey, and perhaps it fueled it to work harder. A new initiative of precarious laborers’, called “ödemiyoruz” (we won’t pay), brings the economic crisis to the fore and refuses to pay the toll for mismanagement of government funds. CSO’s and initiatives in diverse areas of activism reach out to their followers through live broadcasts, which have been a lifesaver against isolation. In the provinces ecological activism continues with all its might against the enclosures and pollution by private companies.[6] All these various components of society insist on holding the decision makers accountable with the available online tools.

The most recent case of how online activism can respond to the political repression has been centered around the government plans to withdraw from Istanbul Convention, which recognizes the gender and sexual orientation-based discrimination before law, and which ensures protection against violence against women and LGBTI+ individuals. The tensions further grew as the Director of Religious Affairs, Ali Erbaş, openly targeted LGBTI+ communities on his Friday sermon. When the bar associations condemned his statements, prosecutors launched investigations against these associations. Regardless of these developments and amidst the pandemic, various Pride Week celebrations took place online with all its colors and events, despite the heightened hate speech and discriminatory discourse practiced by the leading government officials and pro-government media outlets. The LGBTI+ communities have been rigorous in keeping the political attacks against the LGBTI+ rights on agenda, through widening their own discourses to fight against the LGBTI+phobia carried out by the official discourse. Feminist groups continue their campaigns against the government plans to withdraw from Istanbul Convention and against the plans to lower the age of consent in marriage.[7] After a young woman’s body was found brutally mutilated, feminists have found a creative and empowering way to amplify their voice against femicide with the hashtags #IstanbulSözleşmesiYaşatır and #challengeaccepted.[8] The social media campaign has led to global awareness of the impunity for violence against women in Turkey, with women users sharing black and white photographs. The protests are currently ongoing in the streets with thousands of women standing together to protect each other.

Although political pressures are at the top of the list of challenges against freedom of expression and right to information; the attention economy itself stands in the way of public debate and political agency under the COVID19 pandemic. In a media climate defined by monopolization of media outlets by pro-government capital, censorship and the suppression of dissident media, the invasion of the agenda by fear-mongering and sensationalist COVID19 related material further deteriorates the media landscape. Such a landscape means that there is a starkly higher possibility of missing out on crucial information of corruption, impunity against sexual violence and discrimination, ecological destruction, malpractice and other “bad” news that in fact feed into our political agency. While we all focus on the death toll and apocalyptic news, we are left in the dark as to significant events with long lasting impact on our society. Therefore, especially now, it is ever more important to amplify the voices of the citizen journalists, activists, oppositional media outlets, and to financially support these alternative platforms.

And so, we arrived at the concluding paragraph. This is where I am supposed to come up with a silver lining, a common denominator, a glimpse at a solution. Here it goes, like a paper boat in a tiny stream: Our common, global experience of the pandemic can indeed be an opportunity for us the empathize, to share and to build solidarity; all of which are reliant on how our communication is structured and whether or not we can exercise the fundamental freedom of expression. But more significantly, it requires us to reflect on what that means in practice, in different contexts: Freedom of expression cannot be merely guaranteed by a constitution or international protection mechanisms. The differentials of its exercise depend on structural inequalities in accessing the space, the physical and financial means, the time, and the safety for expressing one’s self. The current media technologies, that is, the architecture as well as the context of communication, contain our expression: It gives shape to or restrains the circulation of expression and imagery. Thus, we must take this chance to rethink who can speak where and when using what and how if we want to safeguard freedom of expression and to fertilize the ground where emancipatory new ideas will blossom.

[1] Our team conducts interviews to follow the needs and problems of the students in Turkey. To read the students’ views on the current conditions under COVID pandemic, read our articles here.
[2] The last data we have on the number of students in prison is dated 2018. The number had increased 25 fold over the course of three years, reaching 70 thousand, of which some 33 thousand was those enrolled in formal secondary education. We also do not know how many of these students are in prison for political reasons.
[3] “Turkey will require social media giants to appoint local representatives: draft law”, Ali Kucukgocmen, April 9, 2020, Reuters. Read full article here.
[4] “Turkey passes controversial law regulating social media”, New York Times, July 29, 2020. Red full article here.
[5] İşhan Erdinç’s interview with Prof. Dr. Yaman Akdeniz on Agos Daily, August 9, 2020. Read the interview here.
[6] The latest protests have been in Kirazlıyayla village of Bursa, where the villagers are protesting against a metal enrichment facility that will pollute the spring water. Read more here.
[7] The last demonstration took place on May 21,2020 against the child abuse and age of consent. Read more about it here.
[8] “Femicide in Turkey is rising. If you took part in #ChallengeAccepted, you need to amplify the cause you overlooked”, Tuğçe Özbiçeri The Independent, August 6, 2020. Read full article here.

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