The march of the penguins, it seems, has moved from Antarctica to the crossroads where Europe meets Asia. These flightless birds have become a fitting if unlikely symbol of the democratic movement and backlash against a timid press in Turkey.
As police reacted with water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protests, Turkish television stations aired cooking shows, soap opera reruns and a documentary about penguins. People following events through Twitter and Facebook took to the streets.
The silence of the press became the issue. Signs and T-shirts sprouted showing penguins wearing gas masks and goggles. People carried signs that read, "Attention to Turkish media! Stop kissing ass, sharpen your pencil & PUBLISH THE TRUTH!"
According to a two-day online survey conducted by two academics from Istanbul Bilgi University, the silence of the press influenced 84 percent of respondents to attend protests. The authoritarian attitude of the prime minister, disproportionate use of force by police and violations of democratic rights were other top issues that spurred people to protest.
And so a small demonstration ostensibly about a development proposal and a plan to cut trees in an iconic park in Istanbul turned into so much more in this country with a 99 percent Muslim population that was touted as a democratic, pro-capitalist model for Arab Spring countries emerging from dictatorships. The protests in 78 Turkish cities clearly were not just about proposed destruction of a park in Istanbul.
The events brought out Turkish Americans in Sacramento, too. Berk Evrensel, a hotel manager who came to the United States after high school in 1989 and who still has relatives and friends in Turkey, told me that Gezi Park was a "waking moment."
"It brought average people to the streets who had never protested before," he said. "Yet they were called looters and terrorists by government officials. Peaceful assembly is not terrorism."
Evrensel is president of the Sacramento chapter of the Turkish American Association of California, a social and cultural organization. It is not a political organization, and Evrensel said he is not experienced in political matters. But, he said, "in light of recent events ignited by the Gezi Park protests – deterioration of civil rights, basic freedoms and democracy in Turkey – we could not stay silent."
The group helped organize a June 8 rally at the state Capitol to highlight "basic rights like freedom of assembly, speech and press." Gezi Park, he said, broke the silence of ordinary people: "It woke up some intimidated people to speak up and ask for a better country."
At the heart of the matter is the failure of the Turkish press to shine a light on government practices and to serve as a platform for diverse political expression. As Americans know, and largely take for granted, freedom of the press and free speech are intertwined.
What accounts for the timidity of the Turkish press?
Reporters Without Borders points out that government intimidation is rife: "Several journalists critical of recent government policy have been fired, publications have been banned, media have been prevented from working, and many foreign journalists have been arrested and ordered to leave."
The international Committee to Protect Journalists published a report titled "Turkey's Press Freedom Crisis" in October, noting that Turkey had become "the world's leading jailer of journalists." The CPJ captured the essence of the problem in the words of a Turkish columnist: "Newspapers that come out every day know all that's wrong in Turkey but are too intimidated to do proper journalism."
At the backdrop is the longstanding issue of how to handle press coverage of the Kurdish population spread across Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Journalists who cover issues of Kurdish demands for self-determination, Kurdish separatism or Kurdish calls for independent nationhood get accused of "terrorism." As the CPJ report notes, the Turkish government often conflates basic newsgathering on the Kurdish cause "as though they were members of a terror group."
The press crackdown, however, threatens some real gains by the Turkish government in resolving the Kurdish issue – for example, allowing Kurdish language television and university studies and, most important, negotiating with the leader of a three-decade-long Kurdish insurgency.
Turkey has come far since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during World War I and the 1923 establishment of the democratic, secular Republic of Turkey under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. And after military overthrow of four governments between 1960 and 1997, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has won three elections since 2002, ushered in an era of stability, economic growth and international influence as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East, between the Mediterranean and Russia.
Evrensel believes, however, that "success has gotten to the government's head" and he hopes that the protests will spark the next phase of Turkish democracy. Turkey, he notes, is not like Egypt or Syria. Despite its faults, Turkey is a democracy and can leverage the heritage of 1923 to improve.
Turkey is more democratic than in the past, and Evrensel says he has seen a lot of positive changes even in his father's lifetime. He has huge hopes for Turkey. But it will take a change of mindset by the prime minister and the majority AK Party, who Evrensel points out, are elected to serve all of the people of Turkey – not just those who voted for them.
So when the Sacramento chapter of the Turkish American Association of California gathers to mark Turkey's 90th Republic Day on Oct. 29, will it be a time of celebration of Turkey's secular democracy or nostalgia for better days? The jury is out, and the state of the press will be a major indicator. Let's hope for less coverage of penguins and more in-depth coverage of hard news in the days ahead.
TURKEY'S PRESS FREEDOM CRISIS
Report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (October 2012)
Turkish authorities have mounted one of the world's most widespread crackdowns on press freedom in recent history. At least 76 journalists were imprisoned, nearly all on anti-state charges, when the Committee to Protect Journalists conducted an extensive survey in August 2012. More than three-quarters had not been convicted of a crime but had been held for months or even years as they awaited trial or a court verdict. Scores of other journalists have faced criminal charges, many of them multiple counts, for critical coverage seen as "denigrating Turkishness" or influencing the outcome of a trial.
Of the 76 journalists imprisoned on Aug. 1, 2012, at least 61 were being jailed in direct reprisal for their journalism, according to CPJ's analysis, which was based on a review of court documents and Justice Ministry records, along with interviews with defendants and lawyers involved in the cases. The imprisonments constitute one of the largest crackdowns CPJ has documented in the 27 years it has been compiling records on journalists in prison.
Of those imprisoned in Turkey, more than 70 percent are Kurdish journalists who have been charged with aiding terrorist organizations by covering the viewpoints and activities of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party and the Union of Communities in Kurdistan.