K&C interviewed Merve Şebnem Oruç,a commentator and columnist in Turkey who focuses on Turkish politics and diplomacy, Arab-Israeli relations, and Middle East politics.
In 2013, we saw the Gezi protests and the December 17-25 operations. Looking back at those events, what were some of the challenges for you as a female journalist?
There were many different reasons for the challenges I faced, but I can say the biggest issue was related to social media. I was someone who actively used my social media accounts. But lately I’ve had to establish some distance for myself — I grew tired of social media and have had to leave it alone for a while. This was actually due to peer pressure, especially after the days of Gezi. Even though Gezi allegedly began with environmentalist interests, it became an anti-Erdogan, anti-AK Party, even an anti-religion movement, and I received a lot of strong reactions as someone who was seen a secular woman with a westernized appearance. Further, perhaps the reason behind the apparent shock certain individuals experienced is just because I am not head-scarfed. For every single swipe taken at Muslims, I experienced five. Gezi was a secularist riot attempt, and I think someone who looks like a secular person and stood against it was a traitor for the Gezi crowd.
While you were expected to stand together with the secularists in support of Gezi, you were labeled as a traitor when you didn’t join their camp.
Yes, I was labeled a traitor – all sorts of unbelievable things happened. Even people I didn’t know or those I was barely acquainted with produced all sorts of stories about me. For instance, “her father was an alcoholic and he beat her – that’s why she’s against drinking alcohol” – things like that. There was this mob mindset. Today the so-called AK trolls are highly criticized for harassment on social media, but that kind of troll actually appeared with Gezi. There were these ringleaders during Gezi, who would call for a digital assault after some tweet post. There was unbelievably derogatory rhetoric – things that shouldn’t be said to a woman, or to anyone, and it just kept coming. Then there were threats and blackmail. It was impossible to ignore how hard they tried to keep you out of social media. Of course, towards the middle of 2014, I stubbornly pushed on, writing, writing, writing. But there were certainly times when I said, “Enough! I should just get rid of this account.” I often said, “this is ridiculous.” And not just me, many of my peers experienced the same thing. Covered women experienced this in their own neighborhoods from nearby communities. This was especially a frequent issue during the 17-25 operation. We witnessed the Gulenists specifically target head-scarfed female writers with messages that were twice as bad as the tweets. If you ask me, this was parallel to everything we experienced with Gezi. Of course, in order to discredit the things we said and wrote, there were significant personal attacks made. One of the things mentioned most was a pro-AK Party label and the baggage that came with it. There were claims that we “made lots of money” basically accusing us of stealing, extortion, selling out to function as hired keyboard provocateurs.
What really scares me is the possibility of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. When too much attention is devoted to something, it becomes normalized. Something that doesn’t exist is brought into reality. Hopefully this won’t happen. Being a journalist or a writer means working for a salary. To be honest, we all know who the most money-making media tycoons and their media platforms are. I doubt that those writers among the AK Party defenders make nearly as much as the big names of Aydin Dogan media. Here’s my personal view: I don’t get behind certain policies because I support the AK Party. In fact, by supporting certain policies, I am also supporting the AK Party. For me, the important thing is the AK Party government’s foreign policy, which has been subject to severe criticism again and again. We appear to be individuals who support foundering policies for the sake of personal interests. In fact, this is totally wrong. We actually don’t really have a hidden agenda; rather, what we’re losing mostly likely outweighs what we gain because our reputation, our name, our social life are being targeted. You search your name on Google and it pops up among thousands of comments riddled with curse words, lies, and insults. The things you say show up with headlines that completely reduce the meaning and value behind them. Then also, of course, is social pressure, which is constant. Your family, friends, and acquaintances see these things written about you and it leaves them in a tough position. Honestly, you experience damage from every direction. There’s no benefit from this, and it causes more harm than good.
Let me ask this – you also send out tweets in English. For example, during Gezi and the 17-25 Dec. operation did you receive similar harsh reactions from the foreign press after your tweets in English or did these journalists try to help out after being surprised at certain reactions? Did you notice a change in your interactions and communications with them? Because they claim that the minority parties’ press is being quelled and there is no freedom of the press. Did you feel that their attitude toward you changed at all?
We had serious conflicts with certain members of the foreign press. But with others, we had respectful debates about the issues. Other than that, the worst reactions were from other Turks who were tweeting in English. As if some of them were being paid to send anti-Erdogan tweets in English from morning to night, these people were sending nearly 100 tweets per day. It was apparent that these tweets and comments were given considerable thought. For instance, some of the Turkish tweets were taken out of context and meticulously translated into English. We noticed that these people were especially bothered by our English tweets. Since most of my followers are Turks, I generally write in Turkish, but on occasion when I tweet in English, I get a reaction as if this has to be stopped. If it’s about Gulen, the Gulenists; if it’s about the PKK, pro-PKK individuals; or Gezi, etc., whoever is directly linked, starts up an incredible hate campaign. They make a significant effort to present you to the foreign audience as a sell-out pro-AK Party keyboard provocateur.
The foreign press depicts the minority party media as working under oppressive conditions, and are constantly reporting about how limited the freedom of press supposedly is here in Turkey. For example, the New York Times reports on the Can Dundar issue or Amberin Zaman being crucified on twitter, but during Gezi when Merve Şebnem was subjected to an intense hate campaign, the foreign press ignored it. Why do you think this is?
It’s two-fold: first of all, since these individuals present their finished products in a completely politicized manner, there are many who eat it up, whereas when this happens to those who identify with the AK Party, they prefer to remain in the shadows. The simplest example of this is the fact that not many legal cases were brought against the slander that was thrown around during Gezi. Actually, this is something created by having one side constantly trod upon throughout Turkish Republican history. At this point, we’re used to being insulted on social media. There’s this sense of, “ah, so what, we got spit on yet again, they kicked our car again, this happened, that happened, we’re used to it.” We didn’t raise our voices about what was being said so we didn’t turn to the justice system, plus we’re extremely used to being victimized.
From the New York Times to the Independent, we can consistently see stories that reflect negatively on Turkey. They’ve lost sight of the human story here, of what the person experienced with a judge, or one’s boss, or a company, or another person. The perception is as if Turkey is a system that has collapsed on top of its people. This has been happening for a long time but now it’s so frequent that it’s even begun to serve as a mold that shapes all journalism. So it makes our job of presenting the reality here quite difficult these days. The AK Party government and AK Party supporters have had to move to a constantly defensive position.
So, you’re constantly being threatened. There are lynch crusades against you. Does this affect your daily life and activities? For example, do you feel hesitant when you pass by groups who are mostly Gezi supporters? Do you ever wonder if someone might confront you in the middle of the street sometime?
Honestly, I am no longer speaking with some people I used to be very close friends with because of my views and opinions on Gezi. Neither they nor I were representatives of some political party, and I had never seen completely eye to eye with them. But I haven’t changed camps either. When each camp’s lines became so rigid, I was pushed away for being on “the other side.” We still haven’t started speaking. We can say this is an obligatory change of camps. Actually we can say that they created this polarization themselves. People like me, who believed the lines were more fluid, were caught between two sides. They pushed me straight into the “Islamist” group. Am I bothered by this? No. But certain things are quite startling. For example, Sputnik News Agency published some writing about me in reaction to something I had written. At the end was a threat written in a mocking tone
After that, some of my friends said I should adjust my habits, that is, change my daily routine. With social media, a random unfamiliar account can say, “you’ll get yours,” or “we’ll kill you too.” “You’ll be judged” remains among the lighter messages. Especially thinking about the latest PKK accounts – they leave you longing for the previous messages! With Gezi, it was, “We’ll spit in your face too.” With Dec. 17-25, it was “you’ll be tried as a thief,” but now it’s “we’ll send you to your grave.”
After being subjected to so much hate, slander, and threats, do you think the reason is mostly because you appear as a young secular-looking female journalist, even though you don’t in fact support that camp? Let’s say you were a male, 60 years in age. Do you think the same negative campaign would have been undertaken?
Certainly there is a difference about me being a woman rather than a man. What I heard most was that I wasn’t even a woman! Anything you asked about me would get the response, “There isn’t a woman like that, it must be a man with a fake social media account.” The reason was that there weren’t many photographs of me on social media. I’m not someone who likes sharing her personal life so I wouldn’t share many photos. Because of a leg injury I didn’t appear on television much those days. As a result, those secularists who think of themselves as the most sensitive about women, who give the most value to women’s rights, and who go on about women’s equality, said, “someone whose arguments are so sophisticated cannot be a woman,” which isn’t only an insult to me but all women. It bothers them that a woman is using her brain. They were upset due to the fact that, in their minds, the AK Party’s position meant “pressuring women out of society, taking their rights, and putting them in their places,” so how could a woman who isn’t covered, not someone’s wife, or not the daughter of an MP take “their” side and poke holes in our arguments?