Analysis: Social media users in Turkey were outraged on Monday when access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube was blocked in the largest social media ban ever imposed in the country.
They woke up on Tuesday with their access restored, but the blanket ban was nevertheless the latest unnerving marker of Turkey’s descent into an increasingly authoritarian state.
The social media sites were blocked after a prosecutor said they were guilty of abetting terrorists and spreading propaganda. Their crime? Hosting an image of a terrorist from the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C) holding a gun to the head of Istanbul prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz during last week’s hostage crisis.
Istanbul judge Bekir Altun wrote that the websites were engaged in "terrorism propaganda," and he accused those who published such content of endangering public order and security.
In Today’s Zaman, Turkey’s largest English-language newspaper, columnist Mumtazer Turkone wrote, “In general, after such terrorist attacks, the government, the police and the intelligence agency are held responsible. This was not the case in Turkey; opposition parties and media outlets that are critical of the government were blamed by those who should actually feel responsible.”
The independent watchdog organization Freedom House downgraded Turkey from “Partly Free” to “Not Free” in its 2014 report on press freedom. That meant Turkey, a NATO member and European Union-member applicant, joined Iran, North Korea, China, Pakistan and Vietnam among countries that actively block websites.
Hours after news of the hostage situation broke last week, the government issued a gag order, citing security concerns. Live news broadcasts from outside the courthouse stopped, and football and fashion news were broadcast instead.
Reporters Without Borders quickly condemned Turkey’s ban on coverage of the hostage situation. The country, it said, was “yet again demonstrating that censorship is the Turkish government’s first reflex in any difficulty.”
Over 150 gag orders have been issued in the last four years, including 24 in the first quarter of 2015 alone. One of the more recent ones banned coverage of an investigation into allegations of high-level government corruption that implicated members of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s family and high-level members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Because few newspapers have dared to defy the gag orders, Twitter and other social media sites have been a valuable resource for Turks who want to know what is going on in their country.
Last year, Turkey’s blanket bans of Twitter and YouTube ahead of local elections generated huge international condemnation. NGOs and world leaders united in reminding Turkey of its commitment to upholding freedom of expression.
What’s more, banning Twitter had failed dramatically. The number of tweets from Turkey doubled in the hours after the ban was implemented last March. So the government decided that individual tweets would be prosecuted instead.
In the second half of last year Turkey filed over five times as many content-removal requests with Twitter than any other country. Two of those affected by this were Bulent Kenes and Celil Sagir, the editors of Today’s Zaman, whose accounts have been repeatedly suspended on charges of insulting government officials. Last month a court ruled that they were guilty of insulting the prime minister, and their tweets were removed from the site.
The charge of “insulting a government official” can be a hefty crime in Turkey. Former TV journalist Sedef Kabas, who has 60,000 Twitter followers, is due in court at the end of the month on the charge of defaming a public prosecutor in a tweet that read: “Do not forget the name of the chief-prosecutor who cancelled the investigation, Hadi Salihoglu.” The investigation she was referring to was the one into government corruption that the prosecutor dropped due to lack of evidence.
Tweeters are not the sole targets. A former Miss Turkey is facing two years in jail for an Instagram post a prosecutor deemed insulting to President Erdogan. It was a quote from a poem that was featured in a Turkish satirical magazine, Uykusuz. “The remarks shared by the suspect could not be considered within the terms of freedom of expression,” the prosecutor concluded in his indictment.
Erdogan himself doesn’t seem to be entertained by the irony, considering that he himself spent 10 months in jail for reciting a political poem in the late ’90s. Last year, he made his attitude toward freedom of expression clear when he told crowds he would “root out” Twitter, regardless of how the world reacted. “I am not interested in whether the international community says this or that,” he said. “They will see the power of the Turkish Republic.”
The power of the Turkish Republic is having concrete consequences for those who make a living on free speech. According to a report released last week by the Contemporary Journalists Association (CGD), nine journalists were detained, arrested or fined and nine others were physically assaulted in the first three months of this year alone.
The report is damning. By the end of March, 13 journalists faced investigations and 30 lost their jobs, half of them with the state-run Anadolu news agency.
The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) noted that “Turkey has seen increased pressure on the media in recent years, part of a drift toward authoritarianism that has led to a pervasive climate of self-censorship and one of the most troubling press freedom pictures in Europe.”