Ihbar means to denounce, to warn and to communicate, a dangerous conflation of meanings that elides the line between getting a neighbor arrested and simply passing on some news. The Arabic-rooted word ihbar comes from the more innocent root haber: news, information, tidings, rumor. Once you add human intent to the mix, a Pandora’s Box of ill intention is opened. Ihbar as a concept is always much in the news in Turkey with widespread phone tapping and surveillance and the use of secret witnesses and confidential informants in trials. Ergenekon trial evidence was tainted by exactly this lack of transparency. Allowing ihbar as evidence allows the judicial system to be used as a form of oppression, a club wielded by someone with a mask and a purpose, rather than a fair and open airing of a dispute.
Judging by news accounts, people are constantly being picked up by police because someone has denounced them anonymously for some infraction or other, sometimes a vague “insulting Turkishness” or “aiding a terror group” perhaps by having been seen attending a conference or standing at a bus stop, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The real reason could be different, of course. Your neighbor dislikes your lifestyle or opinions or a shop owner wants to cut you out of the competition. In Turkey, the ihbar can be enough to get you held in jail for a very long time until your case finally comes up and someone bothers to see if there are any facts supporting it.
Haber, the news, is itself loaded with human intent. People read newspapers not for information, but for the opinions of their favorite columnists, and those opinions are then fodder for the news. Haber takes the form of rumor and opinion. Just as gossip serves as an informal means by which society polices the behavior and beliefs of its members (especially its women), rumor, haber, ihbar serve that function at the national level. It’s not surprising that Turkey’s population has a much lower level of inter-personal trust than any other OECD nation and, unlike the pattern elsewhere, levels of trust go down even further with higher education. The more you know, the less you trust others.
Ihbar is now being institutionalized in the service of the state, much as it was during the days of Sultan Abdul Hamid II who created a spy network with as many as 50,000 informants. A few days ago, the Turkish government went a step further to formalize people policing one another. First, PM Erdogan encouraged citizens to report their neighbors to the police and take them to court if they create noise pollution by banging their pots and pans in the evening as part of the Gezi protest. He said disturbing your neighbors is a crime and noise pollution is a threat against the environment. “You shouldn’t expect the state to do everything for you.” He promised that “we’ll act together” against such things.
Then the police announced that they would put “tip boxes” in certain neighborhoods. People could anonymously leave “complaints” about neighbors they suspect of being involved in “unlawful activity”. Into these boxes undoubtedly will be spilled the entire gamut of national vitriol from accusations of normative misbehavior (see my posts in the category “Women” for instance) to nationalist and racist definitions of “Turkishness” that demonize anyone who is different (see the category “Nationalism”).
If only one could rely on the police to winnow these complaints and to respond only to real “crimes”, but given the partisan nature of all Turkish institutions and the fact that the police are steeped in the same steaming nationalist, racist, misogynist, and communitarian stew as much of the rest of the country, what we can expect is more people hauled from their homes for unspecified “crimes” that they may or may not have done and that may or may not actually be on the law books. Serendipity might be the new watchword instead of justice — the chance to trample on your neighbor or a stranger with impunity.
Let’s take two recent examples from the news (haber) that may or may not involve ihbar, but likely are a result of serendipity.
In the above video, police swarm through an alley in Beyoglu and pull up two older men sitting outside a small grill restaurant eating their dinner, manhandle them and haul them away, presumably under arrest. This was caught on video by a neighbor from his window (haber) and put on YouTube (ihbar). Similar videos of police swarming back streets and confronting local residents have appeared since the first police attacks on Gezi demonstrators. Except that the people in these videos are not demonstrators. They are the local residents that the government claims have been economically hurt by the protests.
So what do these videos show? As with any ihbar, you look first for motivation. Is this a plot by the government to make their prediction come true? People are so afraid of the police swarms that business DOES decline; this can then be blamed on the protesters. Or are the men being arrested for drinking and eating during Ramazan by enraged hungry police? Or for sitting on two chairs in public outside the restaurant, illegally occupying public space? Did they not have their identity cards handy? Or are they criminals that the police had been looking for, drug dealers perhaps, or thieves. If one applies the principle of Occam’s Razor to Turkey, that the explanation with the least assumptions is the right one, then serendipity wins out. The police were given impunity to swarm, happened to see these two men and swept them along.
In this video, police swarm a man assisting a trash picker on Istiklal Boulevard and arrest him, then kick apart the trash picker’s cart, strewing the trash everywhere. Was there an ihbar that the trash contained a bomb (in which case kicking it wasn’t such a good idea). Was the citizen in violation of a rule about assisting trash pickers? Was the person a thief, a criminal (he shouts “It not me!”)? Or was this serendipity? An odd gesture (aiding a trash picker) leading to suspicion and attack with impunity. Occam’s razor would indicate the latter.
The former East Germany also had an entrenched network of people spying on one another for the Stasi secret police. Once Stasi archives were opened, it was learned that one in ten citizens of the GDR spied for the Stasi, spouses on each other, children on their parents, and friends and fellow activists on one another. That is what ihbar as a way of life looks like. Ihbar, impunity and serendipity are the beginning of a long, painful slide into a police state.