A sepia photograph depicting Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, printed on top of a crescent moon and star on a red flag, stood visible in the distance. The date was June 9, on the grassy slopes of Mount Royal Park, where community members gathered in solidarity with the Occupy Gezi movement.
McGill engineering student Melih Cem Oluscender, and former McGill students Merve Sancak and Suna Tatlipinar, were the first to organize the Sunday protests in Mount Royal Park.
The mobilization of Turkish McGill students has since prompted a diverse gathering of Montrealers in support of freedom of speech and democratic values.
Turkish students enrolled at McGill University at the start of the 2012 fall semester numbered 110 out of 8,302 total international students (not counting those with Canadian citizenship or permanent residencies). They rank 14th on the list of McGill’s international student populations, a ranking that has been steadily rising every year.
According to Sancak, the first Sunday demonstration, held on June 2, garnered mainly Turkish people. By the second weekly demonstration, Sancak said that as the word spread of the movement, there were new faces in the crowd, with many that she did not even recognize.
On June 5, at a meeting organized by Canadian Marxist journal Fightback, 20 organizers discussed what was in store for Turkey and the Middle East. It had been one week since the beginning of unrest in Istanbul.
“Erdoğan is trying to destroy Kemalism, which is holding all ethnicities together,” said Sibel Kose, a Greenpeace member for over 20 years.
Kemalism – the political ideology of Atatürk – was founded on six principles, among them secularism and revolutionism. “They just want their democratic rights back,” added Kose, speaking about those who were protesting in the streets.
In a phone interview with The Daily, a consultant at the Turkish consulate in Montreal named Tatlipinar suggested that “the Canadian government should at least put pressure on the Turkish government.”
Although not representative of the Consulate’s stance on the issue, Tatlipinar believes that “[cutting] ties with Turkey is not good for Turkish people.”
Tatlipinar also felt that certain rights were being stamped upon by the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party, most notably freedom of speech.
“The television was airing nothing,” Tatlipinar said of the movement’s first few days.
The 2012 prison census conducted by the Committee to Protect Journalists reported 49 journalists imprisoned in Turkish jails – 21 per cent of all reported jailed journalists worldwide – giving Turkey the moniker of “the world’s worst jailer of the press.” In 2011, eight journalists were in Turkish prisons, marking an 84 per cent increase over one year.
Both Iran and China tailgated Turkey in terms of the number of journalists imprisoned, with 45 and 32 reporters jailed, respectively.
McGill Economics Masters student Dilek Sayedahmed listed Turkish channels that she claimed were not broadcasting news on Occupy Gezi at the time of interview on June 3, citing CNN Turk, NTV, Star TV, and Haberturk TV.
“Thanks to the foreign press, we got to hear about what was happening,” Sayedahmed said.
McGill Operations Management PhD student Ali Inay called what the Turkish government’s practice “auto-censorship,” adding, “We can be a better democracy.”
On June 24, the BBC reported that one of its journalists, Selin Girit, was “attacked on social media by the mayor of Ankara for her coverage of the current protests.”
According to the BBC, Mayor Ibrahim Melih Gokcek has since threatened to sue every Twitter user who uses an anti-Gokcek hashtag created since the threats were made toward Girit. Over three weeks ago, Prime Minister Erdoğan said on Turkish television, “There is now a menace which is called Twitter.”
In an interview for The Daily, McGill undergraduate student Zeynep Kelioglu brought up the number of Twitter users that have been arrested for their online anti-government activity, saying “[Erdoğan] will probably put me in jail if he reads this interview.”