In Turkish Cities, a Black-Box Effort to Turn Citizens Into Government Spies

Last week, Turkish police announced plans to install informant boxes in cities across the protest-prone country. Istanbul-based writer David Lepeska argues that such anonymous, neighbor-on-neighbor surveillance could erode public trust in tight-nit urban communities.

Turkish protesters on Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue, where in early August police drove tanks and shot rubber bullets at dissenters. Credit: Alan Hilditch on Flickr

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Istanbul has been abuzz this week with the harsh verdicts meted out in the five-year Ergenekon coup plot trial, with 19 17 of 275 defendants receiving life sentences for plotting to overthrow the government. It’s a stern warning to coup plotters, to be sure, much like another bit of recent, less-covered news.

Last week, police announced plans to install neighborhood informant boxes in cities across Turkey. Dubbed the Confidential Police Notice Point Project, the move will allow residents to submit anonymous written and oral tips on their neighbors. Picture a small black box on the corner where neighbors drop in slips of paper incriminating one another for offenses like banging pots and pans in support of the Gezi Park protesters (a nightly show of solidarity in many urban areas in the weeks following the countrywide protests).

“It’s a crime to disturb neighbors,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reportedly said in July, urging the public to turn in dissenters. “I’m telling you that such acts require punishment.”

The informant boxes follow a government decision to replace private security workers with state police at all state-run universities, the better to keep an eye on protest-prone college students. Meanwhile, anti-government protests that started back in May continued this past weekend.

On a sultry night in early August, police chased a few hundred demonstrators from Gezi Park using teargas. Then, seemingly unaware of the irony, they drove armored trucks down Istiklal, or Independence, Avenue — Istanbul’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, filled with high-end shops and cafes — shooting rubber bullets at those brave or dumb enough to get in their way.

All this should be acutely troubling to anyone who cares about democracy in the urban world. Istanbulites long weary of the gaze of their government now must look into the eyes of their neighbors. Tools similar to the informant boxes have been used in dictator-run Arab countries before, and as well as in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia — places where secret police kept watch and public trust evaporated.

Local informants are also not completely new to Turkey. “Historically, Istanbul police relied on local informants — the imam, the mukhtar (village leader) — at times of social unrest,” Fariba Zarinebaf, director of Middle East and Islamic studies at the University of California-Riverside and author of Crime and Punishment in Istanbul: 1700-1800, said via email, citing the late 19th century. “But I doubt these measures were ever that effective.”

In a modern world, with a government that has used force to silence demonstrators and cast them as looters, terrorists and rodents, this plan seems far more sinister.

What’s more, the rule of law has never been terribly strong in Turkey. With anonymous reporting, the potential for abuse is considerable. The government has in recent months made little secret of going after journalists it deems a threat to its reputation. What would stop the authorities from going after citizens that draw their ire, claiming an informant’s tip as their prod?

“It is interesting that dissent, i.e. banging on pots and pans, is being defined as a crime,” Zarinebaf said. “Citizens are asked to report this specific form of dissent, and you can imagine how much tension this would create among neighbors who may be mad at each other for various reasons, trying to settle scores.”

On the conservative Istanbul street where I live, near Galata Tower in Beyoglu, locals are out in the street all day. Older men chat, smoke and stare while headscarved women watch their children play and young boys huddle in groups to snack and laugh. They know everybody and trust each other. Crime is rare.

Security in the city relies on a patchwork of similarly organic neighborhood watches, based on familiarity. Take away that sense of familiarity and openness, and erode the system of public trust that has made Istanbul one of Europe’s safest cities.

“If the boxes work, it will tear away the unity of the mahalle (neighborhood) and will create extreme distrust,” Zarinebaf said. “But I am sure the citizens will defy the measure in most neighborhoods. The public has a clear understanding of what constitutes a ‘crime’ and when they should inform on criminal elements.”

The question is whether they may begin to expand those concepts at the urging of their government. In a recent television ad from the government security directorate, a young man is shown giving a rose to a young girl. Soon after, the girl is seen chanting slogans in a street protest. “They use the mask of ‘standing up for your rights’ in small demonstrations,” the narrator says, “ then they quietly steal your child from you.” The story closes with the girl becoming a suicide bomber.

The message is that any young person who stands up for his or her rights is a terrorist — and that everyone must be on guard against threats lurking in plain sight, like the young man with the rose.

There is, however, still hope for many parts of Istanbul where residents have already banded together in the wake of the Gezi protests. Urban Turks have launched more than 100 neighborhood forums all over the country. Most groups meet a few times per week and discuss the issues of the day, from the local to the national, and tend to share a strong sense of solidarity in opposition to the government of Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

For these groups, the informant boxes will not be a welcome addition to the neighborhood and likely will go all but ignored.

But the same cannot be said of the large swaths of AKP supporters — like many residents of my neighborhood — that make up as much as half of Turkey’s 75 million people. For them, the çapulcu, the pot-banger, the terrorist and the coup plotter may soon be one and the same. The informant box may have its uses.

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A freelance journalist and editor based in Istanbul, David Lepeska writes about Islam, technology, media, and cities and sustainability, and has contributed to The New York Times, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Guardian, Metropolis, Monocle, The Atlantic Cities and other outlets.

Tags: public spaceprotestsistanbularab spring

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