Monthly Archives: July 2012

Turkey’s Twitter phenomenon

I had an article out yesterday for the Christian Science Monitor, looking at the significant role of Twitter in breaking media censorship in Turkey.

It has always struck me as interesting that Turkish journalists and news columnists command such huge Twitter followings. From my article:

Turkey already has more journalists in prison than Iran and China, mostly on dubious charges of “terrorism.” It is also ranked 148th out of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2011-2012 Press Freedom Index. More curbs may be coming: This month lawmakers from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) said they were considering introducing changes to press laws that could restrict reports on grounds of “disrupting public morality.” 

Meanwhile, Turkey now ranks 11th in the world for Twitter usage, according to Semiocast, a company specializing in digital analytics.

Uptake of social media is driven by Turkey’s increasingly tech-savvy population. Around a quarter of the country’s cell phone users own a smart phone, the second highest rate in Central and Eastern Europe, according to market research company GfK.

As the Uludere tragedy coverage showed, Twitter has already developed into a powerful tool for disseminating news. Turkish journalists’ Twitter followings often dwarf those of their foreign counterparts, even in countries where usage far outstrips Turkey’s.

Temelkuran has more than 300,000 followers, outstripping almost all the most prominent TV and print journalists in the UK, which has nearly four times as many Twitter users as Turkey.

“It’s crazy,” says Akinan, who now has more than 100,000 followers. “It’s not like I’m a celebrity or a beautiful woman posting pictures of myself. I’m a journalist.”

Professor Uckan says that whilst Turks may not trust their newspapers and television stations, they often do trust the reporters who work for them.

“People don’t see the mainstream media as a source of real news, but they respect a lot of journalists and follow them on Twitter, hoping to get the news that they can’t publish in their newspapers.”

The article also looked at the growing atmosphere of self-censorship that many Turkish journalists describe. In particular, they say that it is becoming taboo to strongly criticize the government.

When this issue comes up, defenders and allies of the AKP tend to say: ‘What about Sözcu?” Sözcu is a small newspaper that remains rabidly critical of the AKP, however it is a fringe publication. In the current situation, according to journalist Serdar Akinan, critical voices have been pushed to these fringes, to such small publications as Sözcu, which espouse extreme and easily discredited viewpoints.

It is at the centre of the media, where it matters, that criticism is being phased out: on the big TV stations and high circulation newspapers.

“We are airing government ministers’ speeches and no one contradicts them. If you do you can lose your job easily,” says Akinan. “Before you could compare different ideas but now that’s finished. They pushed [critical viewpoints] to the edges and you can say they’re crazy people.”

Coincidentally, Erdogan insisted he is big opponent of media censorship in an interview with the Istanbul Review, Hurriyet Daily News reports. “Freedom of expression is a field we are very keen on,” he gushed, “one the standards of which we raise with each passing day.”

It’s difficult to square those comments with the government’s latest ideas for new press laws.

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Life with the birds on the Aras River

(I should have posted this a long time ago, as it relates to a trip back in April. Still, hope you enjoy.)

On the Aras River in Iğdır province, near the border with Armenia, I spent the month of April volunteering for the wildlife charity KuzeyDoğa.

I have written many times about the ecological issues affecting Turkey, and won’t do so again now. I did a short piece for bloggers’ collective Mashallah about Aras, which you can see here.

Whilst staying in a village next to the wetlands that fringe the river, where KuzeyDoğa runs a bird-ringing station, I saw some 100 different species of birds. Each day from 5am to 8pm we would check the long mist nets stretched over the reed beds used to catch them.

The species would change according to the time of day. At dusk a mass of barn swallows (kirlangıç) would come into the nets, as many as 40 an evening. It was the first check in the morning, however, that yielded the greatest variety of species.

When it was my turn to tour the nets, I felt childlike excitement, praying I might find some rarity and relishing the delicate process of extracting the bird from the mesh.

On the 5am round I came across a scop’s owl (ishakkuşu), a soft bundle of grey and brown feathers. It had fallen asleep in the net and as I began untangling it, its yellow eyes drowsily opened and settled on me with a look of affronted dignity.

Different birds would react in surprisingly different ways to being handled, measured, and ringed (a small metal ring containing an identification code is put around the leg using a pair of pliers).

Some would struggle violently, pecking and grasping with their talons. Others would stare at their captors, their beaks open in mute incomprehension.

Others would seem oddly calm, like a sparrowhawk (atmaca) that we took one day. As its legs were being measured it looked on with rapt detachment, like a patient watching an operation performed on his anaesthetized limb.

It is hard not to anthropomorphize animals when seeing them up close in this way. This is frowned on in modern biology, which rightly regards it as unscientific to believe one can intuit the inner life of an animal from expressions that may bear only coincidental similarities to human ones.

Our efforts at understanding our fellow creatures are guided by empirical observation: the close study of habits, the measurement of proportions, neurochemistry, and so on.

As someone from a non-scientific background, I find it frustrating to know that my observations of animals and responses to them are so uninformed, so far from the kind of precise insights that are needed to save some of these species, and which may perhaps also lead to a deeper kind of empathy.

But sometimes it was hard not to transpose a human emotion onto the behavior of a bird.

I am thinking especially of the moment when they were released. Most would erupt into flight as soon as one’s hand opened, and many would sing as they flew off. At this moment, it was impossible for me not to believe that the bird was singing for the joy of escape.

Many scientists will tell you, however, that contrary to popular wisdom birds do not sing for joy. I asked my more experienced colleagues at the station what this behavior might mean. None were sure, but one suggested it was an alarm call, signaling danger to other birds. Another thought they could be contact calls, and that the bird was seeking a mate lost during capture.

When I spoke to a more experienced ornithologist, he too was unsure. “They might just be saying ‘Fuck you, I’m free’,” he suggested.

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The whistling village

Last week I reported from Kuşköy, a village between Trabzon and Giresun on the Black Sea coast, where the residents use a form of whistled communication called kuş dili: ‘bird language’. 

You can read my story for Eurasianet, with an audio slideshow, and for the Times, if you have subscription.

I was fascinated to know why such a form of communication arose, how it worked, what situations it was used in, and how it was surviving.

Kuş dili, as it turns out, is actually a form of whistled Turkish, and not a distinct language. It does not have its own specific grammar, but works by transposing spoken syllables into whistled ones. Most speakers insisted that anything said in ordinary Turkish could be said in kuş dili, and that there was no practical limit to the vocabulary.

However it was also apparent that the ability of the listener to understand what is said is also severely limited, given that kuş dili reduces Turkish syllables to a far smaller number of whistled sounds. In practice, people use simple commands and requests that tie in closely with their daily lives: ‘come for some tea’, ‘come and work with me tomorrow’, etc. If there was something important to say, the command would be: ‘Come over here, I need to talk’.

As it turned out, the villagers didn’t know much about how or when kuş dili came into being, but they all agreed that the region’s extremely steep terrain made it very useful.

Kuşköy is also very spread out. Only a few residents live in the valley bed, where the village’s single street runs alongside a roaring river. Most homes are dotted high up the mountainside on the almost vertical wooded slopes; they seem to hang in thin air.

Travelling even a hundred metres or so would be extremely hard, so it is easy to see why whistling comes in handy. A narrow, potholed road jack-knifes up the hill, and it’s also easy to see that the road and the motorcar must have helped in kuş dili’s decline.

But the telephone is the main threat. I’m continually amazed by the quality of mobile phone reception in Turkey, which is generally better in rural areas than it is in Britain. This is largely thanks to the intense competition between providers, each of whom builds their own network. Vodafone, Turkcell, and Avea have all built masts in the valley. I guess this will eventually be fatal to the kuş dili.

The main aspiration for people there is to somehow turn the whistling into a tourist attraction, the festival being the focus. They have their work cut for them.

For one thing, the festival isn’t really about whistling at all. From 10am to 8pm, there was an endless stream of local musicians and singers, and lots and lots of traditional dancing, but no more than 15 minutes or so of whistling.

This included a rather disappointing competition, in which the four contestants hardly got a go, and which was then declared a draw.

Also, the tourist infrastructure in the area is close to zero. I stayed in Görele, a town of about 15,000 and the closest large settlement to Kuşköy, about 40 minutes away. I was lucky enough to get a room in the öğretmen evi (government-funded accommodation for teachers) – there was not a single hotel.

Nevertheless, this is a truly stunning part of the country, and the people were as friendly as anywhere I have been in Turkey.

Soaked in sunshine and rain for most of the year, it is extraordinarily green and fecund. Alongside the woods of hazelnut coppice and tea terraces, there are orchards of every conceivable fruit. This garden-like landscape has been carved over centuries from breathtaking mountains. Kuş dili or no, it’s worth seeing.

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