THE BLOG

Turkey's New Online Public Sphere: Q & A with Bilge Yesil

04/06/2015 04:41 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

Bilge Yesil, is one of those scholars working on Turkey's media system, which until recently has remain understudied. As an Associate Professor of Media and Culture at College of Staten Island, City University of New York she has been doing research on Turkey, the new online public sphere, media, censorship and surveillance. Yesil is the author of the 2009 book "Video Surveillance: Power and Privacy in Everyday Life". These days, she is getting ready to release even more groundbreaking research. Her new book, tentatively titled, "The Turkish Model?: Media, Democracy and the Neoliberal Islamist State" is about to take its' well-deserved and long- awaited place on the bookshelves. Get ready to hear her name a lot soon!

Recently, Yesil was at the University of Pennsylvania, to give two consecutive lectures on Turkey and the country's' new public sphere. Her lectures attracted great attention from the Penn community. The event room overflowed with students and faculty especially from UPenn's Annenberg School of Communication. Yesil's first address examined the flourishing Internet culture in Turkey, paying particular attention to the emergence of online civic initiatives. Her second lecture was more of a comparative analysis; which exposed Turkey's current position in such debate relative to China and Russia. Her talk shed light on the governments' control of media and the shaky balance between politics and communication.

If you want to learn more about Bilge Yesil, gain insight in to her years-long research on power and politics, her new book forthcoming in Spring 2016 and academic perspective on Turkey's social media environment; here is a chance to get to know this inspirational Turkish academician through her very own words... Bilge enthusiastically and candidly answered my questions about her research on media, Turkey and her two lectures at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ege Ozyegin: How did you start your research on Turkey and how did the idea for your book develop in the first place?

Bilge Yesil: My research interest is situated at the intersection of media, communication technologies and broader political, historical contexts. In my first book, Video Surveillance: Power and Privacy in Everyday Life (2009) I historicized the proliferation of video surveillance in the U.S. within crime prevention and risk management initiatives going back to the 1970s. The conceptual framework of technology, power and politics that I developed in this book formed the basis of my subsequent research projects concerning the Turkish context.

While I was working on these projects, I was also intrigued by certain developments taking place in Turkey's media system, especially the changes in ownership structures, sharp increase in number of imprisoned journalists and intensification of media control. There was something "new" about these developments, yet it was also evident that they were byproducts of major political economic shifts that had taken place back in the 1980s. So I started thinking about the changes and continuities. This is how the idea for the book developed.

EO: Could you briefly explain what your book is about and how the idea developed throughout the process as Turkey's politics and media environment shows an ever-changing climate.

BY: I explore the relationships between state, society and culture through the lens of Turkey's media system. The central theme of the book is that this media system, which is simultaneously market-driven and statist, is the byproduct of state-centric political economic structures, and more specifically of the struggles between the state's authoritarian tendencies and the twin forces of globalization and neo-liberalization. Throughout the book, I explore the implications of these push-and-pull forces on the media especially the transformational decades of 1980s-90s and in the 2000s. I also examine how media outlets, owners and practitioners shaped these transformations, and how they adapted to shifting contours of political and economic power.

It is of course very challenging to write about Turkey, because everything from media, politics to culture change very rapidly. For example, political developments in any given week can be rendered completely irrelevant by the next week or in a matter of few days. Therefore, temporality has been a constant challenge throughout the research and writing process. On several occasions I found myself updating or revising the material I wrote earlier. In some cases, I conducted additional interviews with media practitioners to add new insights.

EO: How easy/hard it was to do research on your home country? Do you think that you ever fell victim to your biases or judgments you held? Can you say that it was easy to stay objective in the process?

BY: The current media landscape in Turkey is very much politicized and polarized. Therefore when you criticize certain media outlets or journalists for their shoddy work, you can be pigeonholed as someone from the opposing camp. I try to maintain a critical distance from all the political tribes, so to speak. For example, I criticize the journalists affiliated with the AKP and or the Gulen community for their questionable tactics against the military and Kurdish politicians, but this does not mean I am with the military. To the contrary, I also denounce the staunch Kemalists in the media for their pro-military and nationalist views. Likewise, I discuss the recent arrests of Gulenist journalists and raise the same concerns that I did with detentions of their Kemalist or Kurdish colleagues. I hope readers will see that I am not selective in my concerns for press freedoms or for a democratic, pluralistic media system.

EO: You mentioned some "sensitivities" in Turkey during your lecture (such as but not limited to moral values, national sovereignty, an idealized Ottoman Past...), do you think there is a way to overcome these sensitivities in Turkey?

BY: There is no quick fix, unfortunately. I think it will take time to establish structures that will ensure political interests do not trump civil liberties and the rule of law. Likewise, it will take time to institute ethnic and religious plurality, and of course a democratic, pluralistic and diverse media system. Only then these "sensitivities" will not have the determining influence they have now.

EO: How would you compare the social media environment in Turkey to other countries like Russia and China, who suffer similar problems, yet show economic progress?

BY: As we all know economic progress does not necessarily translate into democratic consolidation. Turkey, China, Russia and other countries with varying degrees of authoritarianism share some unfortunate similarities in this regard. These countries deploy similar strategies to manage their media and information spaces. Like Russia, and China, Turkey is now complementing its existing filtering, blocking practices with new strategies. Some of these controls are: content removal requests regarding Facebook pages and Twitter posts and stricter legislation to monitor and collect data about online users. Recently, the government proposed some amendments to the Press Law, which, if passed, will make "Internet news sites" subject to the provisions of the Press Law. The term "Internet news sites" is deliberately vague and it is likely that blogs will fall under this category. This proposal very much echoes Russia's "blogger law" that Putin signed in 2014.