Monday, May 16, 2011

“Don’t Touch My Internet” A (Festive) Day of Protest in Istanbul

May 16, 2011

Yesterday I took part in a massive demonstration against the Turkish government’s past/future censorship of the internet. The protest “don’t touch my Internet” took part throughout Turkey; however, only in Istanbul did it attract large numbers. The crowd of tens of thousands certainly was one of the biggest demonstrations I have seen on Istiklal Caddesi (the pedestrian avenue in the heart of Istanbul’s Taksim/Beyoglu neighborhood), with information about it being spread via facebook and other internet sites.

Over the past few years, I have addressed this topic a few times. However, the topic recently received new attention due to the Turkish Telecommunications Directorate (TIB)’s banning of 138 words from Turkish domain site names and the upcoming filtering system which will go into effect on August 22, requiring internet users to choose one of four filtering systems: family, children, domestic or standard. While the government claims that this new filtering system aims to protect families from pornography and that all users will have the right to choose the standard package, the government’s track record of blocking non-pornographic sites is not promising to say the least.

An example of how these filters work came to my knowledge when about two years ago I logged onto the free internet service in Beyoglu and tried to research about a banned book and its court case. After reading other articles about banned books, one of the news articles about a certain book was blocked due to the content of the article which “was not in line with family values (or something to the extent).” It turns out that the banned book’s topic was about women and lesbianism and therefore the page could not be pulled up since “lesbian” was filtered and automatically blocked. While this is in reference to the local municipality’s free service it exhibits the thinking behind such filters and the danger they pose to free speech and expression (not even to mention the book that had been banned)!

The government also should understand that you “cannot have your cake and eat it too.” Who can forget the President and Prime Minister of Turkey claiming that they even knew how to enter the once forbidden Youtube, even though it was closed down in accordance with Turkish Internet Ban Law, no. 5651 (see link below). Likewise, Prime Minster Erdoğan most recently at an election rally criticized Facebook, a site which few countries can compete with Turkey in terms of popularity. In his words, “Facebook is ugly technology. Pages in Facebook are ugly and awful…,” despite that he himself has a facebook page with over 700,000 likes.

To be frank, maneuvering through the legal and bureaucratic reality when it comes to the banning of internet sites is half the problem. From one person to the next it seems no one is clear about what exactly is the criteria for banning sites and the consistency. This confusion seems to be not only among the general population but also among the government itself. According to Freedom House, a US based advocacy group for free speech, “the procedure for censoring information under Law No. 5651 lacks transparency and is often done by administrative fiat, or by court orders in other cases. Within the judiciary, blocking orders can be issued by a judge during preliminary investigations as well as during trial. Censorship is also overseen by the TIB, which was established in August 2005 and has been fully functional since July 2006. Under Law No. 5651, the TIB's mandate includes monitoring internet content and executing blocking orders issued by judges and public prosecutors.” And adds, “Although Law No. 5651 was designed to protect children from illegal and harmful internet content, its broad application to date has had the effect of restricting adults' access to legal content. In some instances, the courts have blocked websites for political content using laws other than Law No. 5651*. To see the report in its entirety here is the link.

I suggest you read the following Hurriyet Daily News article about the banning of the domain site names, which I briefly mentioned above. This article does a good job at explaining the absurdity of TIB’s choice of banned words and the danger it poses to freedom of expression. Lastly, the opponents of the government’s plans to implement filters rightly point out that there are numerous ways to make one’s internet child-proof. Few would argue with the government's quest to protect children from pornography and illegal sites, however the track record of the government on banning sites until now can only leave one to question the extent of their bans and to fear that they also are set on imposing their conservative views on the general population.

For a link to photos of the protest see the following link

*For the current Law (in Turkish) relating to internet bans see the following link

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Towards a New Beginning: Fatah-Hamas Reconciliation

May 8, 2011

Last week, the PLO and the Hamas has seized the moment of change in the Middle East to reach a new agreement ending over 4 years of a divided Palestinian camp. It appears with President Mubarak, a once staunch opponent of Hamas, no longer in the picture, the President of the Palestinian authority and the leader of Fatah, Mahmud Abbas realized that the time had come to work towards reconciling their differences with Hamas, the Islamic party which seized full control of the Gaza Strip. During the last four years, despite what many harsh words critics have slung at Abbas, he has lead the West Bank into prosperous times and put forth an ambitious plan to call for the establishment of a Palestinian state at the United Nations this upcoming September. In contrast, the Hamas has brought economic despair on the Gaza Strip and a failed policy which lead to the last war with Israel. Furthermore, with Syria currently undergoing political strife and Hamas remaining “neutral,” not throwing their weight behind the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, it seems safe to say that they will lose the support of one of their staunchest allies. Recently, it has been rumored that Hamas is even contemplating on moving their political wing to Qatar; if this is true, this will certainly be a move that will lead Hamas’s leader, Khaled al-Meshal to rethink his strategies. Lastly, while discussing the regional aspects of this, the signing of the reconciliation under Egyptian supervision must have came as a surprise to Turkey and its Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who has invested great efforts in the reconciliation of the two factions.

While I will not go into the details of the deal which will eventually lead to general Palestinian elections in 2012, it could not have come at a better time for the Palestinians and at a worst time for Israel which seems strikingly immobile. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even warned Abbas before the signing that it “was either us or them.” This of course would only fall on deaf ears since every Palestinian understands the dire need to reconcile their differences and stand as one government united. Israel would be wise to continue peace negotiations and realize that this actually provides a window of opportunity to reach a sound agreement. As someone who has no lost love for Hamas (to put it mildly), I understand that a peace agreement in the end will be between two governments and Israel does not have the right to choose who they negotiate with; just like the Palestinians cannot boycott talks just because Netanyahu has in his government right-wing factions that are seen as enemies of the Palestinian cause. Nevertheless, it seems that Netanyahu will use this as yet another reason to stall. During his current tenure as Prime Minister, not like his predecessors, he has not made any real attempt at jump-starting the peace process. One wonders what he is waiting for and how long Netanyahu can continue this charade. With countries lining up to support the recognition of a Palestinian state just a few months away, it seems that Israel is stuck with no real answers. If Prime Minster Netanyahu were serious he would appoint a new Foreign Minister since the current one, Avigdor Lieberman has lost all credibility in the hallways of the United Nations and with US and European diplomats. Time is running out and with a united Palestinian front Israel is being backed into a corner with little room left to maneuver (a fact regardless if you are for or against Netanyahu). Lastly, as I write this, a news article has just come out in Haaretz which reminded me of something I had meant to put in this entry: that this reconciliation could definitely help bring closer the release of Gilad Shalit, who has been held hostage by Hamas for almost five years now. Let us hope that with Fatah and Hamas reconciling their differences that a deal over the release of Shalit and Palestinian prisoners can be reached as soon as possible enabling the release of Shalit before the fifth-year anniversary of his capture which is quickly approaching. Such a deal could be a chance for Hamas to show that they understand the new reality and that if they too can work out a deal that is acceptable to both the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Another May Day for Worker’s Rights: Tel Aviv and Istanbul

Long Live May Day, the International Workers' Day!

Tel Aviv:
This year I was especially lucky to be able to participate in two May Day marches. In Israel, commemoration of the worker’s holiday was moved up by two days since this year Yom Ha Shoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) fell on the eve of the May 1. About three thousand protestors marched from Lavinski Park to Meir Park. The significance of it beginning at Lavinski is that this has become the home of the thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of foreign/migrant workers from different African and Asian countries. I had wished to dedicate a whole blog while in to Israel to this community and perhaps I will do so in the future. However, it needs to be stated that they have become central to Israel’s “other side” which is not always reported abroad. Most recently, they have become the center of debate as the current Israeli government are set on expelling them and their children (who now are as Israeli as other Tel Avivis), and they suffer from a great amount of institutional and social discrimination while comprising a large part of Israel’s cheap labor market. I suppose thus it is a typical case of “use and abuse,” and is quite similar to Europe’s question of foreign workers.

At the march, the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash) once again showed their strength. Compromising members of the Israeli Community Party, they by far were the largest group represented, along with other leftist fringe groups and NGOs. The Labor and Meretz parties were considerably smaller and once again exhibited the weakness of the Israeli Zionist left and the few football fans of the Po’el (the Worker) football teams made a stronger presence than the once major parties. Hadash certainly seems like the only party among the left that is actually organized and ready to act, showing up in large numbers at the demonstrations I have participated in during the last few years. Apparently, it seems that many in the now very bourgeois Israeli Labor Party would like to forget that the red flag is in integral part of their past, not to mention the idea that they should be working for the workers and not for the capital of the elite. While I myself understand the changes in the leftist movements and their need to adopt an ideology current to our times, the First of May should remain as a symbol for all those who believe in workers rights, organized labor, and social justice for all oppressed peoples. Yes, gone are the days when Israelis (and most of the world) used to march in the hundreds of thousands however the problems of workers coming head on with an oppressive state and world system continue. It is important to mention that marches also took place in Beer Sheba, Jerusalem, and in the northern city of Nazareth, among other places.
Here is the Link to the march in Tel Aviv


Not like in Tel Aviv, with the march in Istanbul I was taken back to the days of when May Day marches gathered hundreds of thousands. From the time I woke up early in the morning I could hear the protestors blasting through loud speakers leftist music. By the time, I made my way out of my house I was greeted with thousands upon thousands marching towards Taksim square. There is good reason why May Day protests have remained alive in Turkey; since the massacre of protestors at the 1977 May Day protest, which was during the years when the leftist and rightist movements fought out their battles in the streets and eventually lead to the “cleansing” of the left following the 1980 coup d’etat, the protestors have been forbidden to return to Taksim Square. However, after years of clashes with police at different barricade points blocking their entrance to the square, last year for the first time they were allowed to return to Taksim, and they did in large numbers with almost 250,000 people celebrating. This year, with May Day falling on a Sunday, the crowds easily were doubled reaching over 500,000 protestors (sober estimate).

This year’s festivities were a real show of force with unions, left political parties (with a spectrum of all parties from the radical left to the mainstream Republican People’s Party (CHP)),and civil organizations taking part. A concert by legendary leftist Grup Yorum and Kardes Turkuler followed the speeches and the protestors sang the protests songs in unison. Speeches and songs also were held in the once forbidden Kurdish language. In short, for the Turkish left (which has little representation in the parliament), it showed that even if they cannot enter parliament due to an extremely high threshold (10%), they certainly cannot be disregarded. However, the proliferation of small fringe leftist groups present at the demonstration also shows that many of these political parties are doomed to pass on with time. While I was quite happy with the large turnout it seems like this was almost a “good-bye” to massive May Day celebrations, a closure of sorts for all those who remember the bloodshed of the 1970’s, the oppression of the 1980’s-1990's, and also their children who grew up with the stories.

What remains clear is that May Day has survived despite everything and will continue to be relevant for years to come...

Here is the Link to the March in Istanbul