ISTANBUL, TURKEY -- Politics increasingly involves the manipulation of symbolic positions designed to create an impression of a tough political stance against Israel and more liberalization at home.
This is certainly the case here in Turkey where official criticisms of Israel serve the purpose, even when those criticism lack real bite and seem designed to placate domestic and regional public opinion, rather than upset any apple carts or promote real change.
In backing Palestinian proposals for an improved UN status, Turkey looks good in Arab eyes. But the whole gambit is more symbolic than real and is unlikely to make any real difference in ending Israeli occupation or creating a real Palestinian State. Everyone knows that it reflects Palestinian desperation for recognition and progress after 60 years of neither.
This image enhancement may be more of an extension of Turkey's economic offensive in search of new markets and trade deals.
Paradoxically, it may lead to increased Palestinian isolation, hardening the hard lines of right-wing Israeli politicians and forcing President Obama to veto it largely because of hysterical opposition by a relentless Israeli lobby at home.
Ditto for Turkey's demand for an apology in the flotilla incident in which Israeli forces killed 9 Turks on the high seas when they were bringing humanitarian aid to Gaza. The Flotilla itself was an exercise in symbolic politics. Note: Turkey is not bringing charges against the Israeli officials responsible for the killings. (This may change somewhat now that Turkey is seeking support for an application to the International Court of Justice to secure a legal condemnation of Israel's Gaza blockade. The blockade, not the massacre!)
At home, symbolism is skillfully manipulated with the government upholding civilian rule over a military that staged three coups to impose its will in the modern period.
That gives Turkey the patina of a progressive image as a moderate Islamic country where, unlike in Iran, the Mullahs are kept in the background. Religious values are upheld but not in a heavy handed manner.
At the same time, human rights protection is a real disgrace, especially involving the Kurdish community that says that, even as the country appears to become more liberal, it is tightening repressive laws and practices against them and their leaders, even very moderate ones. The leader of the Kurdish opposition, branded a terrorist, is silenced in a Turkish Guantanamo, an Island dungeon like the one that held that other "terrorist," Nelson Mandela. (This is not say there is no terrorism in Turkey. Several bombs went off in Ankara September 20th.)
The same can be said for freedom of expression. At least 18 journalists are in prison here, and a pro-government worldview is upheld by a legal framework and large monitoring and surveillance bureaucracy that censors ideas and the internet all in the name, of course, or protecting the public, upholding the rights of children etc.
When speaking at a symposium on Internet freedom I saw a well-documented presentation on the chilling extent of censorship here. Unlike in other countries where repression is accepted, a mass movement has arisen here to challenge the censors and demand an end to a pervasive filtering system imposed by the government. In May, 60,000 Turks marched for internet freedom, the largest such gathering in the world on this issue that I know about.
Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey 138 out of 178 in their latest worldwide Press Freedom index. Some 3,700 websites have been blocked according to the OSCE, a Europe-wide agency.
More than 50 NGOs have joined together to fight against government interference in the Internet. They have articulated and drafter a "Common Platform Against Internet Censorship".
Ozgur Uckan made a compelling power point presentation on how this works in a country that has a large and active presence of web users.
It points out that as a right, freedom of expression is recognized and protected by the Turkish Constitution through Article 26,1 and comprehensive human rights treaties to which Turkey is a party, but "Turkey has been found in breach of Article 10 of the ECHR by the European Court of Human Rights several times."
Censorship is being sold as a way to promote public safety:
This time, the expressions "black list" and "white list" used for the sites inaccessible by families and accessible by children respectively have been removed. The expression "mandatory filtering done by the State" has been softened and it is presented, as it did not exist. The word "filter" which was one of the main concepts in the previous decision has been filtered and replaced with "list".
Censorship is "imposed on the Internet users in Turkey is being legitimized under the pretext of "Safe Internet Service". The public is misled with the expression "Safe Internet Service".
This pretense has been, this report documents used to massively interfere in the free dissemination of Internet content. In many cases, it's not just the government that is behind this but the Courts which are in the midst of a protracted and ineffective judicial reform.
Since then, access to approximately 3700 websites have been blocked under Law No. 5651 by December 2009, and access to a considerable number of foreign websites including popular websites such as You Tube, Geocities, Daily Motion, Goggle Sites, and Farmville have been blocked from Turkey under the provisions of this law by court orders and administrative blocking orders issued by the TIB.
Similarly, websites in Turkish, or addressing Turkey related issues, especially news sites dealing with south-eastern Turkey such as Özgür Gündem, Keditör, and Günlük Gazetesi, as well as gabile.com and hadigayri.com which in combination form the largest online gay community in Turkey with approximately 225,000 users have been subjected to blocking orders since Law No. 5651 came into force.
Furthermore, access to popular web 2.0 based services such as myspace.com, Last.fm, and Justin.tv have been blocked by courts and Public Prosecutors' Office with regards to intellectual property infringements subject to the Supplemental Article 4 of the Law No. 5846 on Intellectual & Artistic Works.
Much of this is rationalized in the name of protecting against obscenity:
"Right to Privacy - Paternalism in Regulation:
• According to the recent data provided by the TIB, 390 websites have been banned for containing obscene content, 352 of which were banned by administrative blocking orders as of 01 October 2008.
• Obscenity has not been clearly defined in Turkish law.
• The odd result of Law No. 5651 is that a group of lawyers at the TIB decides what is not suitable for minors, but their arbitrary decision also results in blocking adults' access to those websites as well, and the access blocking orders do not differentiate between the adult and child population."
Lest I be accused of hypocrisy as an American criticizing Turkey, there's this latest disturbing development that cannot be ignored.
CLG reports, "The US Government says the threat of cyber attacks is real and has now vowed to target threats more aggressively. The administration is asking for updates to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act so that cyber crimes can be investigated and prosecuted as organized crime.
The White House wants to take the punishment of cyber crime to unprecedented levels. Under the proposed law, hackers who endanger national security would be put in prison for up to 20 years. The proposal would also double current prison times and increase fines in each category of computer crimes."
Clearly, defending the Internet is a global challenge involving governments, and large companies that often do their bidding. Insuring Internet freedom is not a symbolic issue.
News Dissector Danny Schechter writes the newsdissector.com blog, and has been involved with Internet issues since l986. He also writes regularly for the Al Jazeera English website. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.Comments to dissector@mediachannel,org