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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