First Unfounded Rumour:
Source: Equal Times
Out of sight, out of mind: Turkey’s invisible workers
Every year as International Workers’ Day approaches on 1 May, Turkey’s government and its unions begin a ritual. The workers want to celebrate in Istanbul’s most prominent square; the government insists they do so elsewhere, far from sight. The standoff persists until the tear gas comes out.
Even on the one day of the year that the world sets aside to celebrate workers, their visibility is discouraged.
This “out of sight, out of mind” method of labour management extends well beyond the street and into the newsroom, with workers conspicuously absent from mainstream media coverage unless a story is simply too big to ignore – which usually means that multiple workers have died.
“The media is very effective in getting results,” MP Seyit Torun, deputy chair of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), says. “But since we’re stuck with a pro-government media right now, demands for rights unfortunately don’t succeed because they don’t get enough coverage due to government pressure.”
Torun and the CHP organised a march for hazelnut producers last September to protest government pricing policy. The three-day “Justice for Hazelnuts” march between the northern cities of Ordu and Giresun was a success, drawing more than 3,000 participants and leading to the state’s agreement to the producers’ demands.
Yet the mainstream media barely touched the story; such stories are more appropriate for social media or Turkey’s few remaining critical media outlets.
The media’s lack of interest in telling labour stories is directly related to the government’s lack of interest in hearing them. Over the years, as the more-critical outlets were browbeaten and displaced by pro-government counterparts owned by Ankara’s corporate allies, mainstream coverage became largely indistinguishable from official government press releases.
But the ill-fated coup of July 2016 and the state of emergency declared in its wake gave the state the perfect one-size-fits-all excuse to control the narrative.
“Abysmal” levels of press freedom
The bleak state of Turkey’s mediascape is already well-documented: at least 148 journalists are under arrest according to recent figures by the Journalists’ Union of Turkey (TGS), and over 150 media outlets have been summarily closed. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which ranked Turkey 155 out of 180 on its 2017 Press Freedom Index, has described the level of media freedom as “abysmal”.
Torun says that the situation has gotten much worse in recent years, a sentiment echoed by Umar Karatepe, a media relations expert at the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DISK), one of Turkey’s largest and most active labour confederations.
Karatepe says the coup’s effect on workers’ visibility in the media – which was never that high to begin with – has been dramatic.
“Take, for example, our press conferences,” he comments. “Back when we held a press conference the room would be packed with cameras. That all changed with the state of emergency.”
Noting the closure by emergency decree of channels like Hayat TV and IMC, which regularly covered labour stories, he adds: “We lost the television [stations]. It isn’t just that the channels where we were visible were shut down, it’s also a serious threat to all the rest. For example, back in the day we used to be regularly invited to CNN Türk.”
The government defends its crackdown, claiming that it is fighting existential threats and denying that those arrested were journalists. “Most of these are terrorists,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told Bloomberg in September. “Many have been involved in bombing incidents or burglary.”
Meanwhile, critics claim that the crackdown has veered from the original goal of prosecuting those connected with the coup to targeting anyone deemed problematic for the ruling party. Some of those critics are themselves now in prison.
The narrowing of media pluralism and harassment
Whether the government’s actions are part of a legitimate fight against real threats or an authoritarian attempt to stifle dissent, the end result looks the same: journalists voluntarily or involuntarily limit coverage to a narrow range of topics and angles that will not bring trouble.
Stories that the government does not want to hear – e.g. corruption allegations or unhappy workers on strike – are left largely unexplored, except in a handful of smaller outlets. As RSF comments: “Media pluralism has been reduced to a handful of low-circulation newspapers.”
One can still come across labour stories like the hazelnut march in that handful of low-circulation papers and in some online outlets. These outlets are tenacious, but between their relatively unknown status and the lack of any television coverage, workers’ stories are a long way from being heard and even further from swaying public opinion.
Nevertheless, one would be mistaken to think that small size and limited influence spare those critical outlets from harassment.
Opposition news site Sendika (“Union”) is at the centre of one of the most absurd cases of media suppression. One cannot actually visit sendika.org; the site was shut down on July 25, 2015, shortly after a heated election in which Erdoğan’s ruling party lost its majority, leading it to turn to more aggressive tactics.
But each time that Sendika is shut down, it comes back with a URL bearing the next consecutive number: sendika2.org, sendika3.org, etc. As of the writing of this article, the site was available at sendika62.org.
Editor Ali Ergin Demirhan has a sense of humour about the affair: after launching sendika50.org in July 2017, he applied to the Guinness World Book of Records to be recognised as the “most-censored website that persevered”.
Pointing to a noticeable decline in labour coverage under the state of emergency, Demirhan notes that it is not due to direct censorship – after all, there has been no regulation barring such coverage – but self-censorship. Writers not only are not submitting new content under their own names, they are also asking that previous contributions be removed. “We have suffered a major loss of content,” he says.
“This fear not only prevents new content, but also effectively censors previously published content.”
The criminalisation of news
It is not just writers who are afraid; Demirhan notes that sources on whom he used to rely to confirm stories are now afraid of making statements that might get them in trouble. Even worse, workers, too, are now afraid of complaining to the press.
“The criminalisation of news keeps the worker, now afraid for his job, from airing his grievances,” he says.
Yunus Öztürk, founder of news site Sol Defter (“Left Notebook”), notes a similar phenomenon, in which workers have personally requested that they be removed from archived stories or photographs with which they previously had no problem.
“If you watch mainstream media you’d think there is no workers’ movement in Turkey,” Öztürk says, citing that as his reason for having established Sol Defter in 2010.
“It’s clear there is regression since 2010. There is regression in the news, regression in the number of people who want to write content under their own names…a demoralisation in the whole of the workers’ movement.”
Despite the lack of coverage, the workers have not gone away. Öztürk notes that one can still find them if one knows where to look.
“Labour courts, social media, both are lively and boiling over with workers’ news and workers’ reactions,” he says. “You just won’t see them in the mainstream media.”
One might initially think that workers’ absence from mainstream coverage is due to a lack of time to report on labour, given that half of the news cycle appears dedicated to long speeches by the president and the other half dedicated to analysing them. But there is actually policy at play.
Take, for example, the hazelnut march. There is nothing inherently wrong about covering the march, except that doing so commits two cardinal sins. First, it makes the opposition party look good. Any such stories already were actively discouraged behind closed doors, even before media suppression became so brazen.
Secondly, and more importantly, any labour-related stories, no matter how benign, could potentially discourage investors. That is a problem for an aggressively pro-investor ruling party, especially one that sees the relationship between employer and employee as a zero-sum game.
Nothing quite exemplifies the pro-business, anti-labour stance like President Erdoğan’s July assurance to foreign investors that the state of emergency was a potential tool to silence workers.
“We enacted the state of emergency so that our business community can work comfortably,” he said. “Anywhere there is a risk of a strike, we’re able to intervene directly thanks to the state of emergency. We say no, we won’t allow a strike here because you’re not allowed to weaken our business sector. That’s what the state of emergency is for.”
‘No economic footprint’
The government has actively prevented major strikes since the ruling party first took power in 2002 on 13 occasions, five of which came under the state of emergency. One large strike that was to include 14,000 workers was prevented on the grounds that “it endangered financial stability,” setting a precedent whereby Turkish workers must now find a way to strike without leaving any economic footprint.
And so, in a country where the government wants workers to be invisible and a media that delivers, workers are left to fend for themselves; workers like Hakki Demiral, who has worked at a shipyard in Istanbul’s Tuzla suburbs for more than 20 years.
Demiral and his union are organising a signature campaign for shipyard workers’ rights. Their demands include an end to unregistered work, rightful pay denied them by employers, and the return of shipyard work to the Dangerous Occupations Protocol list, from which it was recently removed.
Setting up a stand in front of a different shipyard every day – there are around 50 in Tuzla – he already has collected more than 1,000 signatures in a couple of weeks. Yet you won’t see the plight of the shipyard on Turkish media.
“We live in a country where the press is silenced, where it is bought, where the pro-government media writes on the president’s orders,” Demiral says. “This is to be expected.”
The Tuzla shipyards are actually a good example of how workers’ rights can benefit from visibility in the media. Workers in 2008 held two major strikes over a number of deaths and unpaid wages. As popular support grew, the media obliged, further broadening popular support and so on.
“The media couldn’t ignore a protest involving 5,000 to 10,000 workers,” Demiral says, and the shipyard bosses “got a little better”. A resolution was reached, improvements were made, although, perhaps not enough, and the government began monitoring both payments and safety. The workers proved that they really do have power when they can get their message out.
Things have changed much since 2008, when one might come across coverage of a worker or a few thousand in their local newspaper. The workers are more anxious, the media is more anxious, employers are more anxious and the government is much more anxious.
But the workers are still out there, collecting signatures and boycotting, and demanding their rights in court, even if few can see them anymore.
Second Unfounded Rumour:
(written by Zeynep Ekin Aklar with contribution from Gaye Yilmaz)
The repression of opposition movements, particularly trade unions, has been increasing in Turkey since 2008. Today more than 6000 people are in jail as a result of having different opinions from the Turkish government. More specifically, since the end of March 2012, more than 100 journalists and artists, 40 trade union activists, 1000 children, 600 students and academics and thousands of activitists from the Kurdish movement have been held in prison for months without trial. As recently as 25 June 2012, 71 Kurdish trade union members of the Confederation of Public Employees’ Trade Unions (KESK) were detained. For the first time since the 1980 military intervention, Mr. Lami Özgen, a leader of a trade union confederation was detained.
Since 2009, more than 4000 people have been arrested on the claim of being members of or supporting the Union of Kurdish Communities (KCK) that was officially defined as an “illegal” political organisation. There has also been an increasing onslaught against intellectuals such as trade union members Prof. Büşra Ersanlı and Ragıp Zarakolu who are currently on trial possibly facing 20 years’ imprisonment if the prosecution gets its way. Through the AKP policies based on neo-islam and neoliberalism, neoliberalism and neoconservatism have never in the history of Turkey complemented each other as much as they do now. The AKP government regards itself as the second founding ruling power and therefore aims to redesign Turkish society as a whole. In this respect, the government aims to transform all the democratic mass organisations, particularly trade unions, into institutions that are loyal to the neoliberal-neoconservative alignment such that they can be easily taken under its control.
Under these circumstances, this repression and pressure have turned towards trade unions in general. KESK in particular has become one of the mass organisations targeted by the AKP government because of its militant position in society despite its relatively low membership of approximately 220 000. Although all governments targeted KESK since its formation in 1995, attacks have become more systematic since 2008.
It can be claimed that this repression has taken place in three ways. Firstly, the scope of trade union activities has been decreased. Even basic universal trade union rights have been infringed upon. Secondly, the target group has spread. Initially, these repressions were mostly against ordinary trade union activists, but recently the government has raised the bar and targeted elected shop stewards even at the Confederation level. Finally, there is a gender dimension to the repression. In the last three years, the number of women arrested among trade union members has been remarkably high; 7 of them are the female secretaries of KESK and its affiliated trade unions.
We argue that there are three reasons for this repression of trade unions, particularly for KESK, and they are parallel to the Turkish political agenda: the Kurdish question, class struggle and the women’s movement.
The Kurdish question refers to the denial of identities of more than 20 million Kurdish people. This is related to their right to use their mother tongue, and their political, civil and trade union rights. As part of itsfounding principles, KESK is against every kind of nationalism and racism and has always taken a position in favour of people being subjected to oppression and discrimination. While KESK has always demanded more public expenditure for public services rather than for military, the State of Turkey is resorting to military methods to “solve” this question. According to KESK, it is a historical responsibility to defend the peaceful solution of the Kurdish question. Hence, KESK has always been against the militarist approach, taking a clear position towards the massacre of 35 civilians, 17 of whom were children, during aerial strikes on 28 December 2011 under the military operation on Uludere that is the pre-dominantly Kurdish region of south-eastern Turkey.
In this socio-political environment within which the trade union struggle has been constantly increasing, what is happenning in the labour market and trade union struggle is aimed at blockading the trade unions. There is an explicit policy towards union busting by forcing KESK members to change their unions, change their work place, taking them under custody and keeping them in jail for reasons such as distributing handouts, attending press releases, and for staging demonstrations on internationally-recognised political days such as May Day. The AKP government aims to create state-controlled trade unions. While the trade union movement has been constantly weakening under the pressure of neoliberal policies in the world and in Turkey, Memur-Sen, the government friendly trade union confederation, has increased its membership by 1230% since the AKP came into power by establishing cooperation with government representatives in public institutions and municipalities. There is no rational reason for this increase within the true trade union movement.
In Turkey, despite the rigorous repression, authentic trade unions are in resistance and struggle against neoliberal attacks. In this period, executive committee members, ordinary members, even the staff of KESK have been arrested, the headquarters of KESK in Ankara were raided by the police twice in one month, computers and documents were confiscated. Moreover, the mainstream media, that rarely reports KESK’s demonstration as news, took advantage of this incident in order to damage KESK and reported it in detail. However it is very clear that this operation was not only against KESK but rather was an attempt to intimidate public employees fighting for trade union rights and freedom, against class struggle, for labour and democratic powers through KESK. During interrogations, the detained people were asked questions such as “why are you a trade union member?”; “why did you go on a strike?”; “why did you participate in trade union meetings?”; “why did you shout the slogan: we are not giving in to the intimidation by AKP?” In reaction to this operation, many international trade union confederations, primarily International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and Public Services International (PSI), sent protest letters to the Prime Minister Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and expressed their solidarity with KESK.
The women’s movement in Turkey has been one of the most militant and visible sources of activism, composed of various local and national women’s organisations and female members of trade unions. The most recent agenda of the women’s movement has been the murders of women. The ratio of murders of women increased by 1400% between 2002 and 2009 under the AKP government (Ministry of Justice, 2009). Women have been systematically and increasingly exposed to violence and killed. The increasing violence at work, sexual harrasment and mobbing is an indicator ofthe extent to which violence against women has increased and expanded. However, despite this adverse atmosphere, the women’s movement has been rising at every level, particularly in the streets. Every attack against women should be counted as an attack against the women’s movement. In May 29, 2009 10 female Kurdish activists -including the female secretaries of KESK and of the Education Trade Union of KESK ( Eğitim-Sen) were arrested. This year 9 Kurdish women (including new female secretaries of KESK and of the health and municipality trade unions were also arrested.
The most significant difference between what happened during repressive times in the past and the present repressionlies behind the fact that the anti-democratic policies that we are facing today are being implemented in the name of democracy and freedoms. This situation has been weakening the opposition and at the same time it has misled the international community. The concept of “terror” has been used as an excuse for any kind of prohibitions, repression and arrests. All opponents have been arrested and sentenced on charges of being “terrorists”. Nonetheless, while every activity is juristically questioned, to what extent the current legal system is fair is being disregarded. Besides, the legal system has been considerably specialised through the specially authorised prosecutors and courts. People are being arrested on charges of subjective indictments of specially authorised prosecutors and security department and it may take years till the indictment is proved to be insubstantial. In conclusion, while KESK is a labour organisation, it does not only focus on probems in the workplace. KESK does not only believe in the importance of labour struggle, women struggle, struggle for identity, struggle for peaceful solution of Kurdish question, freedom of belief, struggle for democracy, justice and equality but also the actors of these struggles. KESK has deepened its understanding of these issues through its diverse membership profile, composed of women, Kurdish people, Alevi people and other activists who are aware of the prolems in their societies and thus can be part of the struggle for for peace, democracy and equality.
Zeynep Ekin Aklar has been working as a project specialist in the Mother and Child Education Foundation since November 2011. She worked at KESK as trade union expert between 2006-2008.
A letter from Ms Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, to the attention of the Prime Minister of Turkey, concerning the 71 detentions of trade union members which took place in some 20 different cities in the whole of Turkey on 25 June 2012 can be downloaded here.
Norm’s note: Of course, some will contend that all of what has here been presented by way of extended quotations is a mere matter of opinion and perception. Personally, I rather think that it is a matter pertaining to ascertainable ‘facts,’ that is to say, to statements that can be proven to be either ‘true’ or ‘false.’ Therefore, if anything written in the foregoing pieces is factually wrong and you know this to be the case, then please oblige those of us who do not ‘LIVE’ in Turkey and avail us of the counterfactual information and its sources.