International media don’t see LGBTI+ resistance in Turkey, like to paint a picture of a ‘country in flames’

While the LGBTI+ community in Turkey struggles with internal violence and hate speech, it also stands up to the “Eurocentric” approach of the international media. The rights defenders we spoke with criticize the international media’s view of LGBTI+ news in Turkey as “a country in flames,” based on the latest example on the PinkNews website. According to them, the international media should focus on “stories of resistance” in Turkey instead of reinforcing the constant perception of victimization.

LGBTI+ community in Turkey are grappling with problems such as social pressure, hate speech and hate killings, and the lack of protective laws, and they have recently faced direct interventions by the state.

According to the 2020 report of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), Turkey ranks second to last among European countries in terms of LGBTI+ rights. The Istanbul Pride Parade has been banned since 2015, and the ban on LGBTI+ events in Ankara during the state of emergency continues de facto, despite the abolition of the Regional Administrative Court.

It brought the issue to the “state-level” when the Directorate of Religious Affairs blamed LGBTI+ people and those living with HIV for the coronavirus outbreak in a Friday sermon, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used the term “perversion”, and public officials and institutions which are close to the government made LGBTI+phobic posts on social media on the day of the Istanbul Pride March.

My surprise at first then turned into anger

Although the number of publications defending LGBTI+ rights has increased, hate speech, smear campaigns, and targeting of LGBTI+ people in the media close to the government are increasing rapidly. However, when we leave the media in Turkey aside and look at the international media, we encounter a new picture that journalists should focus on and think about in terms of LGBTI+s.

Two years ago, while I was preparing an article about the LGBTI+ community in Turkey for an international publication, my editor had added to my article that “Homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey.” My surprise at first then turned into anger when I looked deeply at the international press about LGBTI+ people in Turkey. Because most of the news and comments are written on the current political agenda and mostly by hearsay, without knowing the culture and history of the country.

When we look at the international media institutions that broadcast on every subject or that only focus on LGBTI+ people, we can see that both of them have a Eurocentric perspective on the LGBTI+ rights record of Turkey and countries like Turkey. We saw an example of this on PinkNews, the UK-based news portal.

Misinformation in the title made local activists a target

During the period when calls to stay at home were made as a precaution against the epidemic, a campaign was launched to encourage children to draw pictures with rainbow colors and hang them on the windows. However, on the second day of the campaign, Mersin and Muğla Provincial Directorates of National Education sent a message to District National Education Directorates: “This is an LGBT project. Don’t support LGBT perverts”.

Pink News, on the other hand, announced this news with the title “The order came from Erdogan” (this article was later corrected). The tweets of the Social Policy, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies Association (SPoD) and the association’s activist Güley Bor were used in the news. Both the news title containing false information and the use of the posts of the directly related people caused LGBTI+s in Turkey and especially the relevant activists to become a target.

After the discussion, we talked with Bor about the details of the issue and the importance of risk measurement in reporting for threatened groups.

Wrong chronology, sensational title

Güley Bor, from SPoD LGBTI+ Law Unit, informed the news portal by sending a tweet that the events were given in the wrong chronological order in the news published on May 6, and that the title was sensational and incorrect. When she didn’t get a response, she also sent an e-mail. Bor explains the situation as follows:

  • “We stated that it is extremely reductive to simplify the government’s tactics against LGBTI+ people in this way, also there is no information about the ‘order’ claimed in the headline in the news text because there is no such order. Also, we stated that an order issued by Erdogan himself would be of course different from the message sent by the Provincial National Education to the district units, that PinkNews is read by LGBTI+ people all over the world and as a result of this kind of false news, the LGBTI+ organizations and civil networks that SPoD is associated within various countries reached out to us with concern, and that they created confusion about the issue, making it difficult to talk about the problems experienced by LGBTI+ people in Turkey during the pandemic.”

Bor also states that they also emphasized that it is unethical for them to add tweets belonging to her and SPoD under the misleading title. “We expressed that it is against both integrity and the principle of ‘do no harm’ that journalists take social media posts out of context –especially when reposting social media posts made by non-public figures– and distort cases in the news,” says Bor. She emphasizes that nobody got in touch with herself, SPoD, or an LGBTI+ person from Turkey while reporting.

They said ‘carelessness’ and changed the title

Bor emphasizes that in addition to bad journalism and incomplete research, the association and herself were also implicated. “We explained that our tweets they published without our permission drag us into this chaos and put us at risk, we said that this process is proof that PinkNews cannot internalize transnational solidarity. For this reason, we requested that the news title be changed, the references to our tweets removed in the news and that if one of us is to be cited again, we want to be contacted first,” adds Bor.

She also adds that they could not even get a straight answer, let alone an apology. Afterward, the title of the news was determined to be as a result of “carelessness” and changed, but the tweets used were not removed because they had been shared in the public domain. “However, we requested that we want to be contacted before the use of our tweets in order to conduct the risk assessment ourselves, which is PinkNews’ job but not done; to minimize and, if necessary, repair the possible effects of their unethical journalism on us,” says Bor.

Risk should be assessed in news about threatened communities

At this point, a debate arises about the importance of risk assessment in news about threatened communities. Emphasizing that it is not right for her to comment on the meaning of this in journalism because she is not a journalist, Bor gives an example from her own experience as an independent researcher:

  • “As a researcher on sexual and gender-based violence during conflict, I see risk assessment as an indispensable step to be taken for every stage of the research within the scope of the principle of ‘do no harm.’ In my research, I do separate risk assessments to participate in the study about the people I interviewed as part of the field study, separate to be mentioned by name in the study, separate to quote them directly in the study, and separately to share this quote on social media, and I receive informed consent from them for each one separately.”

Bor emphasizes that in cases where she thinks the risk is serious, she tries to anonymize the information that may lead to people being identified, or she doesn’t interview those people:

  • “Because I am aware that as a researcher, I am responsible for both the direct and indirect consequences of my decision to involve myself into any context; this is essentially an outside intervention. This requires first of all to be aware of the privileges that my researcher identity brings me. Besides, I try to take into account hierarchies such as race, class, religion, language, citizenship intersectionally.”
Güley Bor

Tweets can’t be taken out of context, even if they are publicly available

When she evaluates all this in the context of her incident with PinkNews, Bor emphasizes that the news portal’s effort to free itself from responsibility is unacceptable because the tweets are shared in the public domain. “They are of course responsible for the way they presented these tweets in the news. PinkNews is not a platform, it presents our posts in a certain context. The fact that information is shared in the public domain does not make the context in which they are reproduced unimportant,” she says.

Bor emphasizes that the responsibility of any work that carries the risk of making the subjects who are the target of discrimination and violence worse off than they are, falls on the shoulders of researchers and journalists, especially in research and news on discrimination and violence by the state.

Using the expression “If a news or research about groups that are already in a vulnerable situation puts that group at even greater risk, it is better not to do that study”, Bor, giving examples from her own work, says: “I would like to remind you that these are minimum standards; for example, taking this one step further in my own studies, if I think that the group I wrote about will not benefit from that research, I choose not to do that research.”

The main reason for the error is the Eurocentric perspective

However, the issue is not just a journalistic error, the main reason for this error is the Eurocentric perspective. At this point, Bor emphasizes that even if LGBTI+ identity activism can be attributed to the West, queerness is never unique to the West and says:

  • “Global North-centered liberal LGBTI+ activism can, from time to time, erase the local queer movements and resistances of the Global South and impose its Eurocentric understanding. There is no such thing that queer activism will be the same in every country, in every society, and the rainbow flag raised will mean the same thing or even provide benefit for every queer community.”

At this point, Bor states that since many LGBTI+ organizations depend on the resources provided by LGBTI+ organizations in the Global North, a hierarchy has emerged. She adds that hierarchies can be overcome by giving the LGBTI+ movements in countries a voice and democratizing application mechanisms, and LGBTI+ organizations in Turkey work with organizations that have this awareness.

‘According to them, we are always victims with our hands tied’

In most of the news about the representation of LGBTI+ people in Turkey in the international media, we are faced with a picture of a country in flames. Of course, we cannot expect “positive journalism” for a country where LGBTI+ people are targeted by high-level public officials. However, Bor also emphasizes that LGBTI+ people from Turkey are mostly reported in crisis situations, and “stories of resistance are not included.”

“According to them, we are always victims with our hands tied. However, in Turkey, there is a very strong grassroots LGBTI+ movement and very valuable resistance practices,” says Bor. She adds that she thinks this is because they look at Turkey through the lens of Eurocentric LGBTI+ activism.

‘The only way for our campaigns to appear in foreign media should not be attacks against those campaigns”

Bor summarizes her views on the LGBTI+ media, which has a solidaristic language in the international arena, as follows:

  • “They see the struggles they have given and succeeded in for LGBTI+ rights in their own countries as a standard for us and evaluate us based on those. However, of course, there are many aspects of our struggle that are different. For example, I can’t even imagine that there will be a campaign in Turkey, similar to the one in the United States, saying ‘Let gays/trans people be drafted into the military’ and that the LGBTI+ movement will embrace it. That’s why I would prefer publishing that focuses on the history, demands, and efforts of the LGBTI+ movement in Turkey. The hashtag #LGBTİÇocuklarVardır (LGBTI Children Do Exist) is newsworthy on its own; the only way for our campaigns to appear in foreign media should not be attacks against those campaigns.”

The political agenda shows that hate speech and blocking against LGBTI+ community will increase in Turkey. We will even encounter LGBTI+phobic statements by senior public officials. It is therefore time to demand a change in the international media’s stance on this issue.

(This article was originally published in Turkish on Sept. 22, 2020. It is translated by Erdem Gürsu for Journo English.)

Kültigin Kağan Akbulut

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