A Blackout By Any Other Name

Black and white photo of the political science faculty of Ankara University with a sign reading "Long live the Sultan!"

A year and a half ago, most of Turkey lost power. 80 of its 81 provinces, excluding Van, suddenly had no electricity. Since power outages in Istanbul are fairly frequent, that morning as I was out helping my then boyfriend get a tax number in central Istanbul, the lack of electricity around us was more of an annoyance than news until I went on Twitter to see how long the cut would last.

The whole country was out of power except for that eastern-most province that got its electricity from Iran. Many theories would proliferate afterwards as to why the power was out, including that a cat was responsible, following the logic from elections the year before. The prevailing theory aside from such jokes however, was that the outage was connected to a prosecutor on the Berkin Elvan case being held hostage and later killed by the DHKP-C, a Turkish communist group.

There was no coverage of what happened to those who were injured or killed due to the outage at the time, and in fact a coverage ban of the events that afternoon was characteristically issued, thereby creating another blackout that has become all too familiar in Turkey – that of the media being forced to refrain from doing its job.

I didn’t think about the lacking coverage of anything but the main event that day until last week. Over lunch, I recounted to a close friend how I tried to find a copy shop with a backup generator along Istanbul’s backstreets. He asked what had happened to people working in factories or those hurt somehow in connection with the events and I had no answer. Local news does get short shrift in Turkey (unless it involves cats), forcing most of us to rely on social media like Twitter and word of mouth to find out what is happening around us. This will only get worse with the post-coup atmosphere. Just this week, 15 more papers have been shut down by the government and 11 senior staff members of the longest-running Turkish paper, Cumhuriyet (Republic), have been arrested. The 15 papers that were recently shut down were all Kurdish or leftist.

This extreme situation is not unique to Turkey. In the United States, local coverage of an issue as important as local elections and politicians has been largely absent in favor of the blaring “big game” of the presidential election. With the exception of the coverage of “Bridgegate” in my home state of New Jersey, which likely made national news due to Governor Chris Christie’s presidential ambitions, the inkling that local elections and issues can be voted on by residents pops into consciousness with the appearance of lawn signs two weeks before the elections.

While in the US the threat of being jailed or fired for one’s coverage of events is not a factor of impaired or lacking coverage, the closure of many local papers and a lack of local journalists is the greater blackout that threatens our ability to understand those around us as well as the actions and policies of our elected officials. Only a dedicated citizen would go through a site like Ballotpedia to find out what is being voted on and which seats are up for election, but if local media was given the resources to do its job, one would not have to become one’s own journalist.

That’s one of the problems of the digital age: We’ve all become writers, researchers, and journalists, without the payment or resources to spend hours sifting through the mundane to find what is truly important and present it in a manner as truthful and unbiased as possible. Writers exist to tell the small stories that make up the larger picture, but we can hear them only if they are enabled and allowed to tell those stories. The decimation of local papers in the US both in numbers and in staff and the continual war against journalists in Turkey is not unrelated, though the latter is a more extreme and violent situation that we as outsiders can only condemn with our heads in our hands. The other problem of the digital age that contributes to our ignorance is that many papers are pandering to our need to be distracted from our own problems. This is not to say that cat videos or listicles are to be driven off the internet, but if we don’t bother to look at anything else, we as readers are responsible for the demise of our papers and in turn, in our own agency within the Republic system of democracy that is in place in the US.

We need to be informed about what is happening on a local level with smaller papers and larger staffs in order to effectively elect the men and women who will then make decisions for us on issues that will affect our own bodies and our communities, for instance. How the US is run is not just dependent on the next president, but it is dependent moreover on representatives on the local and state scale. We can do something about this by allowing the writers who make such information possible to give voice to the many issues that face us. We can buy subscriptions (digital or print) and turn off our ad blockers on those papers’ websites – and perhaps even support crowdfunding of papers to bring us better coverage. We can read the small stories that make up the larger picture and then vote with our own ideas, rather than through the chain of local gossip.

In Turkey, one often relies on local gossip and social media to actually find out what is happening. The country’s current path to its media war cannot be simply explained, but one can draw parallels between the censorship of the Ottoman press during Abdülaziz I’s and Abdülhamid II’s reigns, and the treatment of Turkish papers today. At least in the late Ottoman Empire, a paper that was shut down would reopen with a different name or reopen with the same name with offices outside of the Ottoman Empire. Today this is no longer possible, especially when the journalists are arrested in a raid on their workplaces. I cannot help but think if the Turkish people were able to be well informed about local events and if they had the same agency that Americans are lucky to have in being able to elect their representatives and to hold those representatives accountable for their actions, that the Turkish press would not be in the state that it is today. The American system isn’t perfect or free of corruption, but it contains rights we can lose if we do not reward those who help us keep them.


Photo: The faculty of the political science department of Ankara University with a sign, “Long live the Sultan!”, early 20th century.