Photo of a protest (Credit: Emre Orman)

Frustrated by the way Turkey’s legal system and news media treats gender-based violence, survivors and victims’ families are increasingly turning to social media to campaign for justice. 

But while online campaigns have helped bring justice in some cases of murder and sexual assault, the phenomenon has highlighted wider failings in the way Turkey deals with these issues.

A photo of Rabia Naz Vatan (credit: Rabia’s father, Şaban Vatan)

When 11-year-old Rabia Naz Vatan was found dead outside her home in the Black Sea city of Giresun in April 2018, her family did not accept the police’s view that it was a suicide.

Suspecting she had been murdered, they asked journalist Metin Cihan to look into the matter further. 

Cihan posted details of the girl’s death on Twitter, and the hashtag #whathappenedtoRabiaNaz soon began to trend. Once mainstream media outlets started to pay attention, the authorities expanded their investigation into her death, forming a parliamentary commission and lifting confidentiality on her case file.

It also provoked a backlash: Cihan was questioned by police about his social media posts regarding Vatan’s case and was also threatened online. He subsequently announced that he was leaving the country.

Cihan explained why he chose to take on Vatan’s case. 

“Before, her father couldn’t even get low-level government officials to talk to him. But thanks to the support on social media, he was able to talk to members of parliament and ministers.” 

He was surprised when he received threats for his campaigning on behalf of the family. 

“I knew I was taking a risk but I wasn’t expecting an outcome like this,” he said. “I tried to keep the issue away from politics but unfortunately, the people in power didn’t see that. They wanted to turn it into a conflict between the government and the opposition.”

Metin Cihan

Another violent incident aired on social media was the killing of six people from the İzol tribe near Şanlıurfa in southeastern Turkey. In the village of Çeltik on 15 June 2019, an armed group – also from the same tribe – attacked a family home, killing four people. The suspects caused two more deaths in a traffic accident as they fled the scene.

Photo of Dilan’s deceased family; she didn’t want her picture used (Credit: Dilan İzol)

The media initially treated the incident as a conflict over land, and soon moved on, but it came under greater scrutiny a few days later when relatives shared a video of the killing on Twitter.

“Most of the country didn’t know about the incident until we shared the footage,” said Dilan İzol, whose parents were murdered in the attack. “This lack of awareness meant that those of us left behind were still in danger. We prevented the incident from being covered up by releasing the footage.” 

Once the truth about the murders made the news, the state launched an investigation.

Derya Yıldır and Emre Yıldır (Derya Yıldır’s personal archive)

Some families turn to social media when they feel they have exhausted all other options. Ahmet Emre Yıldır, 26, committed suicide in April 2019 at his home in Tekirdağ, a city in northwestern Turkey’s Çorlu province. 

A month before his death, Yıldır told his family he had been sexually abused by a relative for almost a decade. He had recorded the perpetrator’s confession and reported it to Çorlu’s chief prosecutor, but became depressed when no action was taken. 

After Yıldır’s death, the perpetrator was arrested but released from custody after three months. Only then did his family decide to publicise the issue. 

“We were never really inclined to take Emre’s case to social media,” said his sister, Derya Yıldır Gür. “Even when the prosecutor took 52 days to process the complaint, we kept our faith in justice.” 

After the family published Yıldır’s recording online, the perpetrator was re-arrested.

In May 2019, university student Şule Çet was sexually assaulted and thrown to her death from the 20th floor of a building in Ankara, the Turkish capital. The perpetrators were released without charge, and the death initially treated as a suicide. 

Çet’s friends launched a Twitter account named “justice for Şule” (@suleicinadalet) in response. After a year-and-a half of campaigning on social media, the perpetrators were convicted of murder and sexual assault and sent to prison. 

Çet’s friends, who want to remain anonymous, explained why they resorted to social media. 

“The attorney general tried to rule her death a suicide and close the case. The media said it was a suicide and used accusatory expressions about Şule. So we decided to do something. Our only goal was to reveal the truth,” one of the friends told Inside Turkey. 

The friends said that their campaign helped raise awareness of gender-based violence in Turkey more generally. According to the campaign group We Will Stop Femicide, 474 women were murdered in Turkey last year. Almost half of them were killed by their partners or ex-partners.

Berfin Özek (Credit: Sedat Suna)

Social media campaigns have also helped survivors of gender-based violence with their recovery. Berfin Özek, 19, is a resident of İskenderun, in Hatay province on the Syrian border. In January 2019, her ex-boyfriend threw acid in her face. Özek, who has lost most of her eyesight and is severely scarred, only received proper medical treatment after a social media campaign by a women’s rights collective in Hatay. 

Because of the campaign, said Özek, “I was able to get surgery sooner. The support helped me get through this process more easily.”

Gülsüm Kav (Kav’s personal archive)

Gülsüm Kav, a spokesperson for We Will Stop Femicide, told Inside Turkey that these social media campaigns were a result of mainstream media being “closed” to the reality of violence against women, and help shape public opinion in support of the victims. 

“For instance,” Kav said, “the most common issue in [cases of] femicide is the perpetrator not getting caught. When social media creates public attention, they are caught in a very short time.” 

Kav said that social media also played a crucial role in the growth of an international women’s rights protest movement, which began in Chile under the hashtag #LasTesis but has been supported by activists in Turkey and elsewhere.

 #Latesis İstanbul performance

Süleyman İrvan, head of the new media department at İstanbul’s Üsküdar University, said that social media will continue to play an important role in exposing these crimes because Turkey lacks a tradition of investigative journalism. 

“Traditional media finds it safer to write news based on official statements. If a report rules something as suicide, journalists won’t dig to see if it’s true,” he said. “No doubt, social media alone can’t change the course of an event, but it can keep it in the spotlight.”

Süleyman İrvan (Credit: İrvan’s personal archive)

But İrvan also sees this as a danger. 

“People should look for justice in court first, and courts should be able to bring about justice faster and more effectively,” he continued. “If we’re left to the mercy of social media, only those who are loud enough will be able to find justice. Many victims don’t have access to social media. But I have to admit that it’s become an effective tool in bringing social issues like violence against women, assault and rape to the social agenda.”