University protests in turkey: “terrorists’ club”.

Students at Istanbul’s Bogazici University are fighting back against the appointment of a rector with close ties to the AKP. Also with social media like Clubhouse.

A student is arrested during the demonstration Photo: Burhan Ozbilici/AP/dpa

Protests against the appointment of an AKP-affiliated rector have been going on at Istanbul’s prestigious Bogazici University since early January. Unlike previous rectors, Melih Bulu’s appointment was made by President Erdogan. Notable protests have become rarer in Turkey in recent years. The resistance, which is not abating now, is taking place not only on campus, in Istanbul and other cities, but also in the social media – with the hyped network Clubhouse playing a special role.

In times of voice messages and the seemingly never-ending number of podcasts, the principle of the audio app is obvious: users arrange to meet in rooms and exchange ideas. Anyone who calls in and is brought on stage by a moderator is allowed to speak. Instead of the closed pub, a quick trip to the clubhouse? Between Lockdown and the thousandth video conference, the app is actually a social pastime.

The rapidly growing number of users from Turkey exchange views on topics ranging from the trivial to the political. It is not new that social media in Turkey are essential for protest movements, but they are monitored and regulated.

What is new, however, is that there have been arrests for the first time as a result of comments made on Clubhouse: In a room with up to 5,000 participants, the protests were discussed and the release of arrested activists was demanded. At least four users were subsequently arrested and are now facing charges of "incitement of the people".

Briefly a censorship-free alternative

Back during the Gezi protests in 2013, social networks played an essential role in creating a counter-public and mobilizing people. Since a law passed in 2020 increasingly restricts social media, Clubhouse briefly seemed to serve as a new censorship-free alternative. That’s because conversations can only be recorded in a roundabout way. Even bots can’t do anything yet or disrupt the conversations. Therefore, the app continues to serve as a live exchange during protests and as a place for regular discussion forums.

After rapidly increasing user numbers, China recently blocked Clubhouse. In Germany, there are concerns about data privacy. Because only being able to join via invitations supposedly exudes something exclusive, but requires the release of all one’s own contacts. Deaf people and currently those who do not own an iPhone are also excluded. In response to a police request, #AsagıBakmayacagiz, meaning "We don’t look down!", became a viral hashtag and has served as a protest rallying cry ever since.

"LGBT, there’s no such thing".

Channels on Instagram are also streaming live actions and clashes on campus. Student Beyza Buldag was arrested for allegedly opening a Whatsapp group to share about the protests. In a picture that went viral on Twitter, demonstrator Melis Akyurek shows her electronic anklet on which she placed an LGBT flag: "Today my house arrest began because I participated in the Bogazici protests. […] It’s an ugly apparatus, […] let’s make it a little more colorful."

"LGBT, there is no such thing," Erdogan said, alluding to the quite a few rainbow and trans flags during the protests. Erdogan himself drew parallels to the Gezi protests and mentioned the demonstrators in the same breath as terrorists. But this is about much more than a few students criticizing their rector.

A counter-model to the conservatism of the AKP

As one of the most recognized educational institutions for the elite in the country, with a worldwide alumni network, Bogazici University stands for the counter-model to the conservatism of the AKP. The appointment of a rector alien to the university is therefore seen as a sensitive intervention in the already endangered academic freedom.

Turkey’s civil society is now once again rising up in revolt. For many young opposition members, Clubhouse serves as a new medium for protest. But also some conservative and right-wing politicians publicly criticized the action against the demonstrators, including the leader of the nationalist İyi Parti, Meral Aksener. Addressing the protesters, she said, "My young friends, welcome to the club of terrorists!"

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