Some musings on media coverage of terrorist attacks in Turkey

Note: I originally wrote this in the wake of the January 12, 2016 bombing in Istanbul, which killed 13 German tourists. I didn’t publish it because I had a lot on my plate at the time, and I wasn’t really sure where I was going with it anyway, so it was just a rambling mess. However, developments since January have had me revisiting this idea in my head so I have tried to turn this mess into something somewhat legible. 

When Paris was hit by a series of coordinated terrorist attacks that left 130 dead on November 13, the massive popular outcry and global show of support quickly met with controversy as people wondered why a double suicide attack that took place in Beirut just a day earlier did not trigger a similar international response. Critics noted that Facebook’s security check-in feature was offered in Paris but not in Beirut, and an old article from last summer about an al-Shabaab attack began circulating through online social media platforms to prove the point that Westerners only cared about other Westerners – after all, wasn’t this the first time that most of them read the al-Shabaab article?

The discrepancy could possibly be explained by other factors. Have attacks in Lebanon become normalized in the minds of online audiences, something which Elie Fares deplores for having happened in the minds of locals themselves? Is it a matter of scale, or that empathy fatigue limits our ability to respond? Is it that consumers of online news are more likely to feel some connection to Paris by way of literature, popular culture, or because they are more likely to visit Paris – still one of the top tourist destinations in the world – than Beirut? A quick Google search leads to these two Wikipedia pages on attacks in Lebanon and France, which you can use to compare incidents if that’s really what you want to do with your time, but that’s your call.

I wasn’t surprised by the difference in coverage, nor by the scathing criticism or the response to that coverage. What really baffled me was the discrepancy between different levels of international media coverage of attacks within the same country.

On October 10, bombers targeted a peace rally in Ankara, killing 102 people – the deadliest attack in Turkey’s history. You may be wondering, with a war next door and violence at home, isn’t this normal? Well, not in Ankara, and certainly not at this scale. Either way, no one in the country wasted time before pointing fingers, speculating about which terrorist organization in the country was responsible, and if/to what extent the government was responsible for letting the attack happen in the first place. But the international response was tepid at best, and several media outlets focused on the accompanying publication ban, which prohibited images and videos of the incident. And even during the backlash against the attention given to Paris compared to Lebanon, the Ankara attack was still entirely absent from the discussion.

Is it any wonder, then, that Turkish fans booed the minute of silence for Paris victims a month later at a soccer game with Greece? After all, where was their minute of silence? I admit that this is speculation, as we can’t know for sure what all the booing fans were thinking, but would certainly not be surprised if this was the case for at least some of those present. I may well be overthinking it (it might just be obnoxious fans being obnoxious), but that was the first thing that came to my mind when I heard about the incident, and I was hardly alone in reaching that conclusion.

After the January 12 attack on the historically rich, tourist-filled Sultanahmet area happened, I expected another tepid response, and was surprised to hear from several people I know asking if I was okay, along with more widespread foreign media coverage. I was confused until I found out that most of those who were killed in the attack were German tourists. The response from German Chancellor Angela Merkel made sense. The response from the rest of the world did not. A colleague of mine – at the time a student – even received an email from her university offering counselling and other resources in case she needed help dealing with the incident. She shrugged it off, observing that it was hardly the first time there was an attack during her stay in Turkey.

Were foreign audiences suddenly becoming more sensitive to events in Turkey? Well, unfortunately, another attack in Ankara a month later seemed to say that they weren’t. On February 17, a car bomb targeting military vehicles killed 28 people, including both military personnel and civilians. I’m not saying that there was zero response to this attack from abroad (I found an article to link here, didn’t I?), but it seemed to have gone as quickly as it came, and I didn’t hear from anyone back home about this one – not even those who reached out to me following the bombing in November. What does the world have against Ankara? Or is it just far enough to be more “over there” and less “I relate to this place” than Istanbul?

But I’m not here to guilt people about what news they read and share online, nor am I going to try to convince people to care more about certain countries. No news is good news, and less news may well be the key to a happier, less anxiety-ridden life. I’m not going to share a news article about every major terrorist attack that occurs, even if it happens not far from me here in Istanbul. (My strategy for dealing with such situations in Turkey is this: when something happens, I make sure to post on Facebook and/or send an email to family members and close friends about completely unrelated things, so that if they hear about the incident, by putting two and two together they can see for themselves that the attack took place at x o’clock and I posted y hours later. After the bombing in Sultanahmet, a friend told me that every time she hears about something bad happening in Turkey, she is always relieved when she sees me active on Facebook. This strategy works.)

I’d like people to know more about Turkey, it’s an interesting place. But so are other places, and this isn’t a contest. An attack on a plane at Sabiha Gökçen Airport, Istanbul’s second airport on the Asian side, left one cleaner dead and another injured on December 23. Did you miss it? If so, it’s not your fault. Well, it is, in the sense that you’re not actively scouring foreign media for attacks abroad, but it wasn’t even that widely covered either. I myself was temporarily out of the country at the time, and didn’t know about it until I got back.

When it comes to my personal safety, when I was writing this in the aftermath of the Sultanahmet attack, I was more worried about getting swine flu on the metro than I was about being the victim of another terrorist act in Istanbul. But that doesn’t mean I’m not deeply troubled by recent events throughout the country or that I don’t exercise caution when I’m out and about.

But don’t worry, Facebook has Turkey covered now. After the February bombing, Facebook implemented its safety check-in feature in Ankara – even asking those in Istanbul if we were in Ankara at the time, and if so, to check ourselves and our friends in. I guess they learned their lesson after Paris. Here it is in its current (i.e. deactivated) form:

ankara explosion screen grab

(Sorry it’s in French, but you know what they say about language…use it or lose it.)

 

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