How Turkish Media Normalizes Post-Coup Mobbing Culture

For more than 135,000 public officials sacked by government decrees in the post-coup crackdown, hardening economic challenges and ever-present threat of abject poverty are the least of their troubles.

Media-endorsed social mobbing, daily harassment and dishonoring insults by fellow citizens in broad daylight in streets constitute far serious, ever-constant problems that plunge tens of thousands of people and their families into a permanent state of psychological trauma and social isolation.

Nearly 140,000 fired from their jobs in the past 7 months are struggling to survive. They’re not allowed to apply for a public job again. Thousands of sacked police officers cannot even work as a security guard. As soon as they are fired, they are also asked to vacate public housing in 15 days. Their passports are revoked. They can’t work in Turkey and can’t travel abroad to survive. Citizenship of those who are living in exile and wanted for arrest will be revoked.

Are they guilty? Earlier this month, Turkey’s justice minister said in a televised interview that most of those purged since the coup attempt were not convicted in courts and that they were fired by administrative decisions. These people cannot appeal these decisions due to the state of emergency. The most tragic part of their ordeal is that their fellow citizens are silent in the face of this.

And neither law enforcement nor media offers any help to contain social hysteria that divides people and friends in nationwide level. If you have, even with the slightest hint, any connection to Fethullah Gulen movement, or any official charge, which is couched in those terms — membership to “FETO” (Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization) — leveled against you, it is enough for someone to end up in crosshair of public wrath, government-driven social hatred.

Media coverage of “FETO” news, coup trials, police raids on suspected “FETO” members, visual presentation of arrests give ample example on media-led hate speech and dehumanizing discourse against a particular segment of society.

The end result is no surprising. Having been subject to the bombardment of such a toxic media language, people take justice into their own hands, and sacked officials over “FETO” link are brutally beaten in broad daylight in streets while onlookers indifferently stare and go their way.

One recent incident in Black Sea province of Samsun is a case in point. A video shared online featuring a man beating a former police chief fired by the government went viral on social media. Mainstream Haberturk TV, whose editorial policy has been shifted to government line over the past four years, released the video on its website with an exalted headline affirming the violent act: Public Beating to Police Chief Dismissed Over FETO Link.

What is more jarring than the beating itself was the open endorsement by a national television channel, which presented the story and video in an approving fashion, an attitude that could give the blank check to watchers who would tempt to follow the suit in the future.

In the video, a store owner beats a former police chief at the store, showing ID card of the police to another man who captures the graphic scenes with his cellphone. The man let loose profanity and insults while beating the hapless police chief, claiming that the former police officer threatened his family. He then drags him into the street, urging people to call the police to arrest the beaten officer and continues to hit him in the face while blood spills to the ground. He even asks a Turkish flag from someone so as to prove his patriotism by beating a “traitor.”

Onlookers and bystanders watch the unfolding scene with surprised eyes but do nothing to interfere with the assailant or tell him to stop. Moments later the police arrived at the scene, took the attacker to the police station, but shortly let him go.

This is not surprising after all when considering months-long implacable media demonization of sacked officials, with real or imagined ties to the Gulen movement. Media depiction of Gulenists, and dismissed public servants, as traitors and evil people in the most indecent terms contribute to the emergence of a mobbing culture. Non-stop bashing of Gulenists by the government-controlled press and mainstream media outlets created a public frenzy that could easily translate into acts of vandalism and mobbing. For millions of people, Gulenists are not regarded as human beings.

To make matters worse, this toxic atmosphere leaves a profound impact on ongoing trials into coup plotters. The government blames the Gulen movement for the failed coup attempt and has placed tens of thousands of Gulen sympathizers in jail. According to the latest human rights report by the U.S. State Department, most of the arrested suspects were imprisoned with little clarity on charges and evidence.

In Trabzon, another Black Sea province, a prosecutor dismissed a complaint by a Gulenist who was tortured in prison, saying that police (security) officials could not be investigated for their conduct during the state of emergency. The most high-profile example came from a senior official of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).  AKP lawmaker Mehmet Metiner, who is head of the parliamentary commission tasked with investigating torture claims in prison, even publicly said in aftermath of the coup that there would be no inquiry into torture incidents if victims were Gulenists. Another minister said suspects imprisoned in connection with the coup will beg to die to escape suffering. 

Such blank check by senior government officials is not lost on ordinary folk. The result was displayed in the recent video. But officially-endorsed intimidation and terrorizing is not limited to Gulenists. Critics of different political creed also face politically-driven attacks.

Attack of a critical fashion designer on the first day of this year provides a perfect textbook case for media-sponsored mob violence. Designer Barbaros Sansal sparked national uproar when he wished Turkey “to be drowned in its own shit,” in a video message he issued during the New Year’s Eve celebration in the Turkish part of Cyprus. He was immediately deported by the Turkish Cypriot authorities after concerted pressure from Ankara, social media mobbing led by journalists and even Ankara mayor. He paid dearly for his remarks in which he revealed his disdain for what was happening in Turkey.

State-run Anadolu news agency released exact date, time and location of his landing so as a group of angry people — staff of ground service of Turkish Airlines— would give him a ‘welcoming party’; beating of a lone man excommunicated by media inquisition. The video footage of his beating went viral on social media with applause and open approval of tens of thousands, including celebrities and senior politicians. It was an ominous sign of the breakdown in social norms and corrosion of civic culture.

History has shown that where mob culture reigns, mutual respect in society fades away, gives way to endemic mistrust and suspicion, summary punishment, arbitrary beating and mob justice, characteristics of a fascist social setting.

Banality of violence becomes a normal pattern of social conduct in everyday life, creates its own codes by removal of central pillars of a democratic society. This is what Turkey endures now.

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