Rabia Karakaya POLAT
(Assistant professor at Işık University, Turkey)

Copyright: www.turkishdailynews.com.tr (Tuesday, June 3, 2008)

On April 27, 2007, Turkey's military general staff posted a memorandum on its Web site around 9:17 p.m. implicitly blaming the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government for having a hidden Islamic agenda and for not doing enough to prevent the supposed rise of an Islamic threat. Dubbed in the media as an e-coup or e-memorandum, this followed the nomination by the government of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül as its presidential candidate.The army's intervention in politics was not a big surprise to those who know the history of military interventions and civil-military relations in Turkey. However, this time there was something new. The army's warning was published around midnight through its Web site without any signature.

This was an anonymous, bodiless, virtual – but not unreal – intervention. There was no information available about the authors of the memorandum. The text was badly written with lots of grammatical errors. Those who remember the 1980 coup tell how Chief of Staff Kenan Evren spoke to the masses on TV and explained the reasons for the coup. In 2007, we faced not a person but a text. A quickly and badly written text by people whose identity was anonymous. Thus, the Internet became the medium for a military intervention. This medium somewhat trivialized the concept of a memorandum or a coup.

The Önder Sav affair:

Almost one year after the e-memorandum, in May 2008, Turkey faced another scandal involving the use of technology. The Secretary General of the Republican People's Party, or CHP, Önder Sav, claimed that his conversation with a former governor had been taped and leaked to a newspaper close to the government. CHP Chairman Deniz Baykal said, "Technological facilities are being used systematically against some citizens by certain gangs nested within the state." He claimed this was an unprecedented incident in Turkish political life and the CHP was being monitored by security forces under the control of the government. Then the correspondent of the Vakit newspaper claimed that he actually listened to Sav's conversation from his cell phone which was left open by mistake. Latest documents revealed by Turkish Telecom proved that Önder Sav left his phone open for 44 minutes. The bugging claims of CHP thus seem to have backfired. However, this incident was not unprecedented in Turkish political life. In fact, Turkish governments have long used phone tapping to monitor political rivals as well as groups thought to be a security threat to the state.

As a result, illegal monitoring scandals have been part of political life in Turkey. In 1999 a court convicted the deputy head of Ankara's police intelligence division for bugging the prime minister's telephones. In 2000, the Chairman of a Supreme Court department sued the Ministry of Internal Affairs after discovering that his official phone was bugged. Not only phone conversations but also e-mail conversations have been subject to surveillance. In February 2002, a scandal broke out following the publication of private emails of the European Union ambassador to Turkey, Karen Fogg, in a weekly magazine. Fogg was accused of forming a special network to destroy Turkey. Journalists, academics, politicians and civil society actors who had communicated with Fogg were publicly prosecuted by nationalist media for taking money from and collaborating with the EU against the interests of Turkey. It is still not known who actually revealed the content of the emails. Are these scandals proofs of wider monitoring practices? Is the Big Brother watching us?

Cameras everywhere:

The introduction of public cameras has also become part of our lives, especially in metropolitan cities such as Istanbul. Surveillance cameras installed in many parts of Istanbul remind us the scenes described in George Orwell's book “1984.” Although Istanbul started to get used to the cameras of the Mobile Electronic System Integration Project (MOBESE) in the last three years, the debate on the use of these cameras for security purposes resurfaced recently during the May 1 Labour Day protests in 2008.  In order to monitor the participants of the May 1 rallies in Taksim district of Istanbul, the police installed additional cameras.

The recordings of the cameras were said to be used to identify the participants who acted violently. The cameras can also be used to identify the violent and undue acts of police forces. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has not happened. A great majority of policemen who used violent means against the protesters could not be identified. What do these three stories – the e-memorandum, the bugging scandal and the use of MOBESE cameras – tell us about the relation between technology and democracy in Turkey? It is true that a technological platform now exists in Turkey to develop applications which in different ways can strengthen democracy.

The Internet penetration is rising as a result of increasing education and income levels as well as government policies. However, these developments do not necessarily bring about e-democracy. The given properties of the Internet are shaped and constructed within different institutional settings in different ways. The Internet (and other ICTs) can be both as a remedy for the problems of contemporary democracies or as a tool for political control and monitoring.

Orwell or Athens?:

The governments are able to gather more information about the preferences of the citizens, which can be used for control/surveillance purposes or for more democratic policy making.  In fact, an overview of the literature published on this subject shows how much attention has been paid to the question, “Orwell or Athens?” Do these technologies create an Orwellian Big Brother society or an Athenian democracy in which citizens are actively engaged with politics? The answer is not determined by technology. The use of the Internet and other technologies is being shaped by the institutional contexts in which they are embedded.

An authoritarian regime does not become democratic with the use of ICTs. Likewise, it is unlikely that a well working democracy turns to be an authoritarian regime just because there are technical opportunities to do so. In Turkey it seems that the prospect of creating Orwell's Oceania with the use of the new ICTs is as strong as the prospect of more democracy through technology. Societal and political factors, not the technology, will determine which scenario will be realized.

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