Using satirical symbols to challenge media censorship

Protesters in Turkey wearing penguin masks

Protesters in Turkey used the image of a penguin to demand a more accountable and responsive media.

On June 6, 2013, Turkish anti-government protesters filled the streets of Istanbul, where they were met with violence and tear gas from a police crackdown on the demonstration. Protests that had initially focused on the protection of an urban park from development had transformed into a broader social movement against the government and the media. While news channels in countries around the world covered the protests, Turkey’s main new station aired a documentary about penguins. Only a couple of minor opposition channels covered the protests, while the rest of the void was filled by social media reports.

Angered by their inability to access relevant news during this tumultuous time, the protest movement adopted the penguin as a symbol of media bias and government censorship. In the weeks that followed, images of penguins proliferated on social media, on t-shirts and masks worn by protesters and in satirical cartoons. 

The campaign eventually achieved some success with this satirical intervention. Under pressure from citizens, the Turkish president later encouraged the media to cover the demonstrations.

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New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

The success of this tactic can be difficult to replicate because satirical symbols often emerge organically. It would be challenging for a group to force the creation of a satirical symbol. However, this tactic does demonstrate the effectiveness of satire in attacking a problem. Symbols like the Turkish penguin are highly recognizable and humorous, which helps them catch on. Yet they are also a type of social commentary that gets a point across to a target audience, in this case the Turkish government and media. Although it may not be feasible for an organization to create a satirical symbol, satire can be used in other ways to call attention to problems, ridicule people and situations and challenge those in power.