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Sunday, July 14, 2013

In the Eye of the Beholder [2]

Belfast riots
British police fight Belfast rioters/12-13 July 2013.

If there is anything Gezi Park can give those of us looking at it from a distance, it is the opportunity to challenge our biases. We can use it to question how we first felt about the peaceful protests upon hearing the news, and what we see now as we watch them develop into ongoing riots led by left-wing fringe groups.

Rioting is not particular to the Turkish landscape, although it may feel like it. When the Gezi Park riots first broke out, the brutal reaction of Turkish police to what became known as the Occupy Gezi protests in Istanbul was believed to have permanently damaged the country's reputation, leading an expert on the region, Fadi Hakura to warn that the Turkish "halo had slipped" in the wake of the violence, and the use of tear gas and water cannons by police.

Belfast riots 2013
But why should the "Turkish halo" be more susceptible to knocks than any other comparative nation? In other countries, irrelevant of what happens, why does the perceived "halo" remain immovable? Point being, in Northern Ireland yesterday, another 400 police officers were sent over from Britain following hours of serious rioting in Belfast. Stones, petrol bombs, bottles and fireworks were thrown at officers, and water cannons have been deployed.

The Belfast riots, which are being called shameful and disgraceful by British police and politicians, happened because a planned protest march was banned. The British government say banning the protest was the right decision to take. This is the same government that issued its citizens a warning not to travel to Turkey, because of the Gezi Park protests. Should the Turkish government now issue a travel warning to the United Kingdom? Especially since Muslims are not safe in Britain with the rise of ultra-nationalists bombing mosques in the country.

From the hundreds of churches and synagogues in Turkey, there are no reports of any being bombed, even when a few politicians tried to link the Gezi Park protests to foreign interventionists and their media. Can we imagine the global uproar if a Christian church was bombed in Turkey by an extreme fringe group? In Britain, as a backlash to the killing of a soldier, a rise in Islamic hatred has seen mosques and Muslims, including children, come under attack from people affiliated with the extreme views of right-wing, ultra-nationalist groups in a private crusade against Muslims. So who knew?

Will we only get to read about it when Muslims start to retaliate? In the same vein, when will we get to read American newspapers report on the brutality of the British police? Or will they follow the suit of the majority of the British media and spin it from the police point of view? Headlines from the BBC's reporting of the violent clashes reveals a lot in this respect. "Belfast trouble: Police attacked for second night" one writes, while another headlines the quote "Belfast riots shameful and disgraceful". But democracy in itself is not a "get out of protest free" card. Whenever there is unfairness, there is a right to protest.

Compare the BBC's style of reporting on the Belfast riots, to the Istanbul protests. Both protests are about curbing the right to freedom of assembly. But I have not read any BBC news articles - or any articles at all for that matter from Turkey or any country - give a news story or opinion piece from the point of view of the Turkish police.

Did the BBC change its reporting style on the riots because it is closer to home, or because the inciteful way they reported on the Gezi park protests backfired to inspire troubles closer to home? The BBC was quick to publish an article on how Northern Ireland police deal with lethal riot weapons, to enlighten its readers on the differences in policing between Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK. The armoury available for dealing with public disorder in Northern Ireland is very different to other UK police forces, as explained by Vincent Kearney, BBC's home affairs correspondent for the region:

While [plastic bullets are] described as a non-lethal option, their use is highly controversial as plastic bullets and their predecessors, rubber bullets, have resulted in a number of deaths, including those of several children.

Plastic bullets have been used in other parts of the UK as a "less lethal" alternative in firearms situations, but not to deal with public disorder. However, that could change as the Metropolitan Police discussed their possible deployment after the London riots in 2011."

Add to this the news (not from the BBC but a rival British corporation) that the Met Police's report, mentioned by Kearney into that summer's riots, also proposed using tear gas, tasers and water cannon as a last resort in tackling future riots and serious public disorder in England and Wales. Read this in light of BBC news reports where Turkey has been "vilified" for using the self-same weapons - we get BBC correspondents reporting from Istanbul provocatively wearing gas marks, we get no such similar reporting from Belfast - and that Europe says Turkey should revise its tear gas laws. Does no correspondent want to pick up what distinguishes one from the other? Is that because what does indeed distinguish it is age-old bias?

I am not saying I believe Turkey shouldn't revise its riot laws, indeed it should, and so should the UK in terms of Northern Ireland. Having our police force become even more violent is not the correct route to respond to violent members of our societies. We need to understand why people are showing their displeasure in this extreme way; we are not going to discover this simply by beating it out of them. It has not worked in times past, as recent events show.

Somehow, as I am biased towards the BBC, I expected more sophisticated reporting from its correspondents, with at least a few of them displaying the requisite mindfulness towards regional sensitivities and the unique history of the country, rather than publishing news reports that just seem to talk about Turkish brutality as though it were a given. Just what is the difference between the Belfast riots and the mutation of the Gezi Park protests into riots - specifically in the deployment of weapons used by the police? Why is it acceptable for one, or at least excused by the BBC in its articles, but not another?

Articles giving the point of view of the Turkish police is deemed unnecessary. I assume the BBC must think it is, because the absence of any such article suggests no editor thought of it, or if they did, dismissed it. Even when the Belfast riots appeared on our doorstep, didn't any BBC correspondent - even Turkish ones working for the corporation - have the wherewithal to make any comparisons? I mean the BBC does have a Turkish arm; it is not as if it can be simple ignorance, but it is even more unsettling to think, therefore, it might be purposeful ignorance.

So what is the difference? Could it be, as I mentioned in the first part of this series, that our bias distinguishes the Belfast incident as an exception, whilst we consider Turkish police brutality simply a reinforcement of our bias about a distant, foreign place?

Or is it that we just have faith in the British system to sort things out, and put their own society in order? I know I do. I am a British citizen, and unashamedly so, and as a member of its justice and legal system, I know that the system can work. But I also know it is just as easily open to corruption, as it is in Turkey, or anywhere else in the world. I also know that there have been dark times in Britain's past when justice has failed its citizens miserably.

There is also the factor that every culture has its own sensitivities by which our universal freedoms will be curbed. Due to Northern Ireland's unique situation, illustrated by Kearney's BBC article, a protest can be banned with the intention to stop more violence and be treated more harshly because of regional unrest. Rioting in Northern Ireland is known for being ultra-violent, and the riot police there deal with rioters very differently than we might see in the streets of London.

Having British police treat rioters in Belfast different than they do with the ones on the streets of London may seem like British police enforcing double standards, but it is not the kind of difference we have seen, for example, between the way American emergency services treated the victims of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy.

In the wake of Katrina, American police had a "shoot to kill" policy against its own citizens in New Orleans, but when Sandy hit the New York State there was a policy to restore normal life for people as quickly as possibly. Was this regional bias, racial bias or even presidential bias? One saw George W. Bush at the helm, the other Barack Obama respectively; or was it simply America learning from the mistakes of Katrina in regards to Sandy?

For me the differences were very telling of America's own deep rooted biases. This week has seen protests erupt across America because of the acquittal of a neighbourhood watch volunteer over the murder of an unarmed black teenager. One protester questioned if an acquittal would have been reached, had it been a white boy who had been murdered, and a black man who had murdered him.

The significance is not simply whether racial bias did indeed creep into the American jury vetting process, but that there is a large majority of American citizens that have no faith in the American justice system. Other correspondents have gone so far as to voice their fears it will be "open season" on black boys after this decision.

The biggest protest over the acquittal was in New York, where a small rally grew into a crowd of thousands, while in Los Angeles police fired rubber bullets in order to disperse the crowd and ended up arresting at least one person on suspicion of throwing rocks and bottles at an officer. But what if the protests increase in violence, and riot police have to take stronger measures to control them? Would Hollywood celebrities come out to march? Would the Western media be talking about America's own uprising for racial bias - which some still believe underlies the incompetencies of emergency aid during Katrina?

Notwithstanding policing is distinct during times of aid and rioting, the examples provided all highlight regional differences. For instance in America, the inherent "shoot first" attitude prevalent in its society is alien to Britain. The Belfast riots, too, can be seen as policing simply reacting and adapting to regional differences, rather than the obvious bias that people in Northern Ireland somehow have lesser rights than any other UK citizen. The BBC will also be more aware of these sensitivities, and report accordingly, and thus what might be seen as bias, could just be experienced reporting. Who else would better know the Northern Ireland situation?

Why did we not, then, apply this kind of logical thinking to the Gezi Park protests? Was it an initial bias the incompetent handling by the Turkish police and the Turkish media might have given us? It is a definite possibility; but were we also quick to judge? The protests in Turkey were far more widespread, it is true, but it also felt far more orchestrated at times. Turkey resides in a region where peaceful protests can quickly turn into riots hijacked by extremists. This is changing, as is the situation in Northern Ireland. But real, long lasting change takes time, it doesn't happen overnight.

To change the world for the better, we need to change ourselves for the better, so the wise adage goes. I wonder if those that wrote about the Gezi protests from a distance will return to their articles and question how they feel about the Gezi protests in the light of the Belfast riots? I wonder what Turkish citizens must feel when they see how the media in the West report on "one of their own"?

Indeed, does anyone remember the 1999 World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle and the violent riots that swept through the streets during the five-day conference? It was called the Battle of Seattle by news reporters to give you a clue to the levels of violence it achieved.

I do not mention this to have one excuse the other, but to wonder why these comparisons haven't been made by more seemingly intelligent, well-educated news correspondents? Naturally, there are as many distinguishing features as there are similarities between the riots, but our bias will have made us think of one as an attack against democracy, while the other as an attack in a democracy.

Compare riots
Which one is the Battle of Seattle, which one is Gezi Park?

We might even feel as though we have had enough reading about Gezi Park, now that we have seen riots in countries we affiliate closely with Western democracy using pepper sprays and employing water cannons on their rioters, into the bargain. Or seen them in places such as Brazil, where protests resumed this week, when tens of thousands of workers joined a day of strikes called by trade unions. They ended in clashes between police and protesters again. The mirror we held up to others now faces us.

I am always reviewing my old articles, and picking up on the biases that make some of my writings a product of their time. Case in point, one of my old posts that feels really dated to me is the one in which I wrote about the hopes with which I saw Barack Obama win the presidential elections in America the first time round. I was writing with rose-tinted bias (especially as a result of Bush). I must have sensed it, because I additionally asked an American guest writer to offer an alternative point of view. But I still feel my article on Obama was blinded by bias - the same sort of bias that found the Nobel committee prematurely awarding him their peace prize in 2009.

Some would blame the system, rather than the man. Obama was not to become an antidote to an authoritarian president like Bush; the American presidency was to become an antidote to the man Obama could have been. If you have ever heard of the Stanford Prison experiment, it became one of the most notorious experiments in the study of human psychology. It revealed that in the right climate, good people are capable of corruption - and much more besides.

From this perspective, it is not only individuals that need to change, the system needs to change. Obama has indeed helped put a dent in political bias to prove real bipartisanship does exist, but the rest will take time, as with any democracy, to grow. For Obama to have done anything else would have required a dictatorship.

Pepper spray used in Brazil
The BBC reports about Brazil riots
on their sports pages/June 2013
Putting our biases aside is easier said than done, but worth the effort. Most of the articles I wrote, whilst putting my biases to one side, feel as fresh and applicable to me today as they were when I wrote them. But it is not easy to always be questioning our own motives; the constant psychoanalysis can make us feel uncomfortable.

When we begin to question ourselves in this way, we can sense our biases starting to make us feel uncomfortable. Feeling uncomfortable over such issues is a sign that we are giving deep seated biases a much needed poke. Friendships, for example, sometimes mean censoring ourselves to respect the sensitivity of the people we care about, but in effect, if we feel uncomfortable about a subject it is because we have touched the raw nerve of some bias we do not care to admit exists.

I have a very dear American friend I phone sometimes, and correspond with online, and invariably when the subject comes to politics she can get uncomfortable. I have jokingly provided her with a codeword to use whenever she feels like changing the subject.

In my opinion, though, I see bias as an inevitable part of working with the wood of life. Splinters of bias will get in our fingers from time to time; if we leave them under the skin they will fester. The best thing to do with bias is to put it under a magnifying glass and pluck it out, or at least be aware of it.

Awareness is a necessary ingredient to understanding, particularly when we read about places like Egypt. The democratic crisis in that country has given us a prime example of what some correspondents though could (or should) have happened in Turkey - had the current Turkish government's reforms not worked to protect the country from military coups. It serves as an example that sometimes it is not better the democracy you know, but the democracy you don't.

At the start of the Gezi protests, although certain anti-Turkish correspondents, such as BBC correspondent Paul Mason, tried to equate it to the Arab uprisings over despot regimes, and differentiate it from the 2011 Greek riots, current events have served to contradict this point of view.

If there was any type of "Turkish uprising" - in effect Turkey's introduction to democracy - it did not happen with Gezi Park. The protests over the park were the example of an existing Turkish democracy at work. Mason, with his anti-Turkish bias, kept his narrow blinkers on, and could not (or did not) want to see further than his own limited squint at Gezi Park. But he was to be proven wrong very quickly, when the crisis in Egypt turned the world's attention away from Istanbul.

In Egypt, military intervention brought an end to its fragile democracy - a "coup" in every sense, except of the word itself, which Western politicians and the media found great reluctance to phrase. I am neither for, nor against what happened, but military intervention is military intervention - even if it does have huge public backing. Governance may not just be about elections, but military intervention in state politics is not a recognised democratic process, no matter whether it was done, as some could argue, for "democratic" reasons. Men with blood on their hands are no respecters of idealogical terms such as "will of the people". In such circumstances, the legitimacy of an unelected government should always be questioned.

Interestingly, no popular political correspondent is standing out to ask why the word "coup" is not being used. No major democratic leader is even prepared to voice an opinion to the contrary. Apart from the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - the man we all suddenly love to hate - who has publicly come out to condemn the military intervention.

With Turkey's history of coups, and with his first-hand experience of their consequences, Erdoğan is well versed to speak on the subject. His paranoia over Western media has a focus, too. The old myth (that pro-Erdoğan media use) about the BBC being a propaganda tool for Western powers with English bias does have historical precedence; the BBC has now "confessed" (for lack of a better word) to its involvement in the Iran affair, when the British government used the BBC's Persian service for advancing its propaganda against Mohammad Mosaddegh in the 1950s.

Moreover, what happened in Egypt might have happened in Turkey a decade ago, and while some in the West tried to label the Gezi protests as an uprising against an undemocratic state, others would say Erdoğan's decade-long democratic progresses have in fact passed the test. But whether we call what happened in Egypt a "coup" or not, the word should at least be on the table.

Regional sensitivities will curb freedoms, but surely in the West we should not back one, while condemning another simply because it is politically expedient to do so. Or is just historical bias, big time? Having built up such euphoric claims of an "Arab Spring", are we having difficulty to see its winter of discontent? The crisis in Egypt, where once autocratic dominoes fell, could completely reverse the process, leaving people to wonder if any Arab country will be able to successfully embrace political secularism. Democracy is no walk in the park. The failings in Egypt must clearly sting; they are not the failings of democracy per se, but more the failings of Western foreign policy.

In a 2008 poem during the Iraq war, I wrote that democracy is like a tree. What I was trying to say in my own way is that the democracy which grows in any nation must be local to the country's soil; you cannot just supplant one idealogical model for another and expect it to take root. An important point that Mason ignored on the subject of Gezi was that the seeds of democracy in Turkey were planted a long time ago, and it has grown naturally beside the enlightenment of its citizens.

That type of deep rooted democracy cannot be not felled by protest; it is simply a strong wind that shakes its branches. But the tree must first take firm hold in the soil. Gardeners know well if you plant a tree in unnative soil, it can invade the local habitat, and be just as destructive as if you had used napalm. During British colonial rule, the eucalyptus tree was introduced to my birth island of Cyprus, and several species there have become invasive, causing major problems for local ecosystems.

Interestingly, their problematic fast growth has also made them economically important trees. Their destructive tendencies are tolerated by locals because the trees are economically viable. They have become a cash crop - and now along with the native fragrant olive groves that have grown there for centuries, we have what many Cypriots view as an Australian interloper, living uneasily side by side with other trees.

The economics of a situation always makes us look at issues differently; money is another important bias that colours our view. If I was in a very cynical mood, I would say half the reason democracy "works" is because it is lucrative. Once Egypt realises that democracy has a serious cash advantage, however destructive a Western model might seem to its local habitat, it will be accepted.

Similarly with Erdoğan, with his tough stance shaking his country's hitherto perceived financial successes, he may be more wary of knee-jerk reactions in the future. Instead of acting like a conspiracy theorist, it may be incentive enough for him to resume his career as a rational statesman, if he realises to do the opposite will hit him where it hurts - in his pocket.

Show me the money, and I will show you a change in the agenda of politics. This also works in reverse. China was constantly browbeaten over its atrocious human rights record in the last century. This century the record has not deviated much, but some believe the browbeating has lessened - thanks in part to China's financial ascendancy helping it to gain more international political clout. You are far less willing to insult a trading partner, especially one that outranks you in terms of population growth and fiscal fidelity.

Evidence of China's rising status is clear by the amount of reporting the BBC do on China in comparison to other countries. While there is still some editorial focus on human rights, there is also just as many reports on China's economic status. It would be great if the decreasing volume of news stories over China's human rights record was because of a humanitarian change in China, and not a financial one. But we in the West put great store on money; if you're a poker-playing capitalist, pretty soon you believe that everyone will learn how to play your game.

Some commentators believe that China and Russia's growing influence has also been a turning point in the weakening of American influence in the world. America's modern day headlock with Iran, with Russia and China as its serious backers, sees the world gradually divided into a different "them versus us" dynamic. The battleground is currently Syria, with the danger of this leaking over to Turkey. Many believe this is what lies behind the violence that has began to pull the strings of the Gezi Park protesters, although the truth of the matter is left-wing secularists are more likely to be anti-American in Turkey because of their communist leanings, than Erdoğan's moderate Islamic conservatives.

So, do we look down on poorer countries, colonised and impoverished throughout history by mightier nations, and expect better from wealthier ones? And when countries join the financial big league, do we make allowances for them?

G8 riot policeG8 protesters in London/MSN UK
When the G8 met in Northern Ireland for their summit in June this year, the United States and the European Union put their heads together to forget greater trade ties - at just about the time Gezi Park was being cleared out after over two weeks of occupation. In the run-up to the G8 summit, riot police were deployed in Britain with talk of restricting Twitter and live video feeds during the protests to limit rioters communicating with each other.

I didn't read of any celebrities tweeting their support for the G8 protests, or going out in support of their rallies. In this context, their Turkish counterparts put their American friends to shame. The BBC did not mention the riots in the run-up to the event on its G8 summit page, either, and only did some minor reporting over arrests when G8 riot police stormed into a building in London where protest members were reportedly squatting.

Ed Argar, from London's Westminster City Council, was quoted by the BBC as saying that the G8 riots:

...Demonstrate that, as ever, there were a small number of people intent on turning a legitimate protest into confrontation. We fully support the right to legitimate protest, but that is not a licence to disrupt the daily lives of residents, visitors and businesses, or the right to break the law."
This was almost word for word the messages Istanbul's governor was tweeting to the Gezi Park protesters. The only difference being that the G8 riots were happening in the presence of America and in the boundaries within the United Kingdom - both of whom had come out publicly to harshly condemn Turkey over the Gezi Park protests weeks before.

America - the same country who was unable to call the military intervention in Egypt a "coup" was not having the same difficulty in attacking Turkish democracy. It has since softened its stance, but the way the West handled political relations with Turkey over the Gezi Park demonstrations has shown that such allowances will not made for Turkey - as readily as they have with China, for instance. Possibly because the market is bigger, and possibly because of our religious biases, too.

On 3 July, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble bluntly underlined Berlin's opposition to Ankara's long-running membership bid saying Turkey is not part of Europe, and it never would be. This is from a man who comes from a culture that sees the northern European continent as propagated by Germanic tribes, and thus German - stretching as far as the Nordic countries to England. It was on this type of racial romanticism that Germany mass murdered its minorities in the latter half of the 20th Century. To such narrow, biased minds, Gezi Park is just an excuse, and politically expedient to use to perpetuate the "barbarism" of the Turks, whilst ignoring their own.

Even if Turkey passed every democracy test going, if it made peace with its minorities, rid itself of the culture of child brides and arranged marriages (especially in the Kurdish communities), showed only average homophobia, no longer forced its media into government affiliations, or gassed peaceful protesters, or jailed without trial "terrorists" or opposing politicians, Schäuble makes it clear he would never accept Turkey. Not even America passes the criteria above, let alone the UK - especially in times of war or "national emergency".

In this sense, I am under no illusions about the BBC or its correspondents, or any news source, for that matter. I am also wary not to immediately assume bias in all things, but when I read anything, I read it critically, actively searching for the bias, and always questioning what I read. However, the BBC links are beneficial to use as a blogger, because the corporation has a policy to keep all its links active. For a blog like mine, exceeding two thousand posts, having such a source cuts down on the amount of dead or broken links that will accumulate naturally over time.

I use the BBC for this reason, but also because it is a reputable news source. If you look through my archives you will see I rarely use any other source, because I do not feel the need to - however, because of the "gaps" in the BBC's coverage over Gezi Park, I have had to fill these with other news sources from America and Turkey. Its coverage has been far from sufficient. With over half a century of broadcasting, the BBC is much more sophisticated than the jingoistic corporation it started off as being, but this still this doesn't mean - however much it aims to be impartial - that it is without bias.

Let me make clear, I am certainly not saying the BBC is part of some conspiracy to blacken Turkey's international reputation, Erdoğan has show us he is perfectly capable of achieving that all by himself, but I am saying, at least where Northern Ireland is concerned, there is establishment bias, and where Turkey is concerned there is historical bias. But impartiality requires being aware of it - and I am not sure they are, or if they are, that they would hand on heart readily admit it, and deal with it.

Did the BBC on its UK site publish any news stories about Istanbul's peaceful Gay Pride march in June? No. How about the civil disobedience protests that followed in the wake of Gezi Park being cleared? Some, but nowhere near the space that was given to the violent riots, and to the police's use of riot weaponry. How many positive news stories are there percentage-wise about Turkey in the BBC's archives, or at least stories that show an alternative side, compared to other countries with regional troubles, say Israel? It would be interesting to see the statistics, and whether it would prove the BBC's bias, or my own.

On the other hand this doesn't mean I will write-off the BBC, either. I did find one insightful article on Gezi. It was tucked away in the BBC Picture Editor's column. It was not by a political correspondent, but by photographer Jake Price, shared by editor Phil Coomes. In contrast to correspondents like Mason, Price covered Gezi up close and personal, and shared some of the issues, as he saw them, behind the unrest.

[In Istanbul] day-to-day life flows more strongly than the heated political rhetoric. I've witnessed the results of the "us v them" language first hand in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Uganda. The main difference with Turkey is that it has so much going for it, whereas the nations I mentioned were mired in poverty and were already in the midst of progressed division. But, in many respects life is good in Turkey."

Hoping to return, Price revealed the difficulty of working in Turkey, and that he was "lucky" after being hit with a tear-gas canister inches from his head while covering a protest. But Price also showed his willingness to move away from the protests and show another side to Istanbul - in an attempt to set aside his biases and listen to the region's unique voice.

On this very issue of bias, I came across another interesting article, this time by journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell. In the absorbing piece, Gladwell argued that one unknown defence analyst could have changed the direction of the Vietnam War - if only people had listened to him. If you have made it this far, be prepared for a history lesson. This is the next part of our story.

Main Index | Part One | End of Part Two | Part Three

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