Unrest in Turkey Erdogan's Love-Hate Relationship with the Web

The protests in Turkey keep flaring up, in the street and on the Web. Police on Wednesday arrested activists because they had allegedly sent 'libelous' tweets. It's a sign of the government's contradictory approach to the Internet, which it purports to embrace.


By in Istanbul

There's one thing you can always rely on in Istanbul -- the business acumen of its street vendors. Once the demonstration by a handful of environmental campaigners had swelled into the biggest mass protest Turkey has seen in years, the traders around Taksim Square and the Istiklal shopping street began selling masks and swimming goggles to protect against tear gas.

Even tourists have kitted themselves out with them in case they get caught up in the unrest. After all, trouble can flare up at any time. It's hard to gauge the momentum of the clashes between demonstrators and the police.

In Istanbul, the security forces are showing greater restraint after their brutality in the first days of the protests led to an international outcry. The clashes now take place at night in the Istanbul district of Besiktas, where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has his Istanbul office.

But there are reports of recurring violence in cities like Ankara and Antakya. The police were reported to have been particularly aggressive on Tuesday night, using tear gas and rubber bullets. No one knows how many people have been injured in the protests. Human rights activists and doctors put the figure at 3,000, while the government will only confirm a tenth of that.

'They Try to Provoke Clashes'

Trade unions have called for a strike, and Turkish share prices have tumbled along with the Turkish currency, the lira. On Tuesday, Erdogan's deputy, Bulent Arinc, apologized for the violent police response to the first protests last week against the demolition of Istanbul's Gezi Park, an area of sycamore trees inside Taksim Square.

But on Tuesday night, tens of thousands of people gathered once again on Taksim Square in Istanbul. There was a festival atmosphere in the air -- laced with fear that the police could strike at any time.

"They try to provoke clashes," said Mehmet, 30, who teaches English. For days, he and some friends have been coming here after work. They stay late into the night in Gezi Park, sitting on rugs, munching potato chips and clutching bottles of water. Street vendors sell watermelon, meatballs and drinks. The aroma of barbecued meat wafts through the air, people sing and talk, and there's laughter and applause. For many, it's the first time they have attended a demonstration.

"When I fall someone helps me up again," says Sema Ö., 29, who is in a euphoric mood like many here. "We know we're not alone here and that we matter to each other." She too has been coming here for days, and her eyes and lungs have burned from tear gas.

The demonstrators come from a generation that has grown up in Turkey's big cities and is tired of the country's fractious, authoritative political system.

Internet Plays Key Role

They learned about the clashes going on in other cities via Facebook and Twitter and on foreign news websites -- not from Turkish television or newspapers, which they mistrust. CNN Türk broadcast a cooking program instead of reporting about the start of the unrest.

On Taksim Square, many demonstrators get out their smartphones and iPads as soon as they sense trouble -- a smell of tear gas, burning flares or a sudden increase in noise. They record what they see and instantly post it online. "Foreign Policy" magazine has published some of the videos of the protests, filmed with the Twitter app Vine, on its blog.

According to state news agency Anadolu, two dozen people were arrested on Wednesday for spreading "misleading and libelous information" on the Web. Shortly before that, Erdogan had railed against Twitter.

The Turkish government has a paradoxical relationship with the Internet. Leading politicians like President Abdullah Gül, who owns a Twitter account, have embraced it in an attempt to prove themselves to be modern and open. Authorities have installed PCs in schools and praise the opportunities the Web offers for the economy and society -- but their support stops when it comes to freedom of opinion.

A law from 2007 allows the government to block entire websites that publish any offensive content. This doesn't just apply to things like child pornography or encouragement to commit suicide, but also to breaches of an old law dating back to 1951, the so-called Atatürk law, which threatens jail for anyone who denigrates the memory of the founder of the republic, Kemal Atatürk.

Based on that law, access to YouTube was barred. Turkish Internet users couldn't open the site for two years, but they got around the ban. In universities, Internet cafes, student halls, offices and newsrooms, they simply accessed YouTube via proxy servers that allowed them to conceal their identity.

So it's fitting that the street traders aren't just offering protective goggles against tear gas, but Guy Fawkes masks too -- the symbol of Web guerilla group Anonymous.


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