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Sarai Sierra Case Dominates Turkish Media—To What End?


Accounts of the Sierra murder investigation jumped forward from the proverbial 'third page' treatment of crimes against Turkish women, but the coverage is deeply flawed argues Alyson Neel, reporting from Istanbul.

It wasn’t long ago that violence against women went virtually unreported in Turkish media. Women’s rights advocates always talk about the “third page”—because that’s where newspapers usually report such crimes, listed formulaically and lumped together with traffic accidents and miscellaneous offences.

“Ten years ago, the media weren’t even talking about violence against women,” said prominent women’s rights advocate Pinar Ilkkaracan, who has been working on this issue for more than 20 years. But following pressure by women's rights organizations, “now there are news outlets that have their own campaigns protesting gender-based violence,” Ilkkaracan said. Turkey's Family Minister Fatma Sahin announced just last year her ministry was beginning to compile comprehensive, consistent data on such violence.

In 2011, Turkish media increased the share of news stories related to women by 82 percent compared to the previous year, Turkey’s Media Monitoring Center (MTM) reported in 2012. Among the more than one million articles discussing women that year were 4,648 on women’s shelters, 3,953 on gender equality and 1,137 on murders of women. Gender violence researchers Asa Elden and Berna Ekal have acknowledged the boost in media coverage of murders of women in the last decade in Turkey, but they say reports tend to focus on a few high-profile cases and ignore day-to-day violence.

Case in point: Sarai Sierra. The harrowing story has headlined newspapers and dominated talk shows in Turkey since she disappeared last month. But much like the reporting of other cases of gender-based violence, the coverage of the murder of the American tourist has been laden with sexism, namely victim blaming.

Her family says Sierra, a 33-year-old mother of two, ventured to Istanbul on January 8 to practice a passion of hers, street photography. The last time they heard from her was the morning of January 21, the day before she was scheduled to return home to New York. She never checked into her flight.

The intense two-week search for Sierra ended on February 2 in the poor seaside neighborhood of Cankurtaran, where police found her body hidden behind a section of the ancient city walls.

While the murder of the young American tourist has garnered attention worldwide, the level of interest it has commanded in Turkey is noteworthy. The National Turkish Police have deemed the investigation into Sierra’s murder, to which they assigned a special task force, their “highest priority,” and the press have been absorbed with every detail of the American tourist’s life. Ilkkaracan, who was included in the Daily Beast's 2011 list of 150 Women Who Shake the World, said the attention is “much more than any Turkish woman would receive”—a major problem in a country where 42 percent of women report experiencing physical or sexual violence at some point in their lifetimes.

I was on the scene in Istanbul the night police identified the woman's body discovered near the tram tracks as Sierra. Every major news organization was there. That weekend, the bodies of four Turkish women who had been murdered by their husbands, partners or boyfriends also were found. Two were in their twenties, and one was killed in Istanbul. Unsurprisingly, the brief coverage they received was tucked away somewhere on the infamous third page.

Though the Sierra murder made headlines for weeks, more often than not the media told her story through a lens that placed the brunt of the blame for the New Yorker’s death on her actions rather than those of her still-unknown assailant. The media immediately questioned, “What business does a mother of two have in Turkey?” and “What kind of woman does this?”

When the press learned of Sierra’s side trips to Amsterdam and Munich, several headlines read, “Was Sierra a drug courier? A spy?” The rumors were so widely reported as fact the Istanbul police chief had to address them. “She was just a tourist,” he told the press.

After police verified the last person known to meet with Sierra was a man named Tarkan K., questions about their relationship and Sierra's marriage and sex life in general began circulating Turkish media. “American Sarai had sex in a bathroom!” one headline announced breathlessly, underlining just how sensational the coverage of the investigation became. Tarkan K.’s lawyer has since come forward and said the two were just friends.

“No one did a thorough journalistic investigation," said Ilkkarcan. "Everyone just reported gossip.”

I witnessed this sort of speculation firsthand. In the pressroom connected to the Public Security Branch, a few of the reporters turned to me, the only American in the bunch. “Why was she staying on Tarlabasi Street?” one asked, referring to a shady back street in the upscale Beyoglu neighborhood. “Why didn’t she stay in a hotel?”

“I live off of Tarlabasi,” I responded, “as do a number of foreigners.”

“Why was she walking around Cankurtaran?” asked another, shaking his head. “Turks know not to do that.”

One Turkish TV reporter, as we were leaving a meeting with a leading police investigator, said, unsmiling, "If you don't answer my calls, I'll just make up the news."

Derek Fahsbender, a friend Sierra met on Instagram in New York, told me he and her family are disgusted by the way the Turkish media have handled the investigation. “What does it really matter?” he asked.

“Why did she come to Turkey alone? Why was she meeting with men? These questions accuse Sierra, the victim, of doing something wrong and, thereby, excuse her killer,” Ilkkaracan said. “This kind of reporting essentially says, ‘She was a bad woman anyway. She was looking for trouble.’”

Despite the protests of Ilkkaracan and other advocates, such marginalization of crimes against women and the excuses made for their overwhelmingly male perpetrators—in the name of honor, “love,” and jealousy, typically—remains the daily practice in Turkish media. Only recently in the western province of Manisa a young man shot a woman to death after she refused to be with him. The headline of that report? “Killed because of unrequited love.”

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