Turkey social media ban raises censorship fears

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My piece on Turkey and the social media… – BBC News (7 April 2015)

For the full article please click here.

History is repeating itself in Turkey. Once again, Turkish authorities have blocked social media in the run-up to an election.

Last year, shortly before local elections in March, sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were banned after leaked audio recordings purported to reveal corruption within the inner circle of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who was then prime minister.

This year, it was an image of a Turkish prosecutor being held at gunpoint after being taken hostage in March that was circulating online. He was later killed.

A ban was necessary, the court argued, because the images were “propaganda for an armed terrorist organisation and distressing for the prosecutor’s family”.

Once again, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook were blocked. On top of that, 166 websites which shared the images were blocked and a criminal investigation was launched against four newspapers for publishing them.

The restrictions have now been lifted after the various social media platforms complied with a court ruling to remove the images.

‘Censorship again?’

The proximity of the ban to the election did not go unnoticed. “Censorship again? What a coincidence?!”, wrote one Twitter user.

Many people in Turkey view the social media restrictions as a sign of the government’s intolerance of opposition voices.

Yaman Akdeniz, a professor at Bilgi University in Istanbul who specialises in digital law, warns there “might be more of those restrictions before the elections”.

“I think that ahead of the elections, with the tension growing, the restrictions will increase for various reasons,” Mr Akdeniz says.

He worries the government will take advantage of a law against breaching personal and private rights. “It has a broad definition,” he says.

But is it necessary to block an entire social network?

A new internet law allows Turkey’s telecommunications authority (TIB) to block any website without seeking a court ruling first, and without giving the website an opportunity first to remove the offending content.

‘Respect the court’

Taha Un, a prominent AKP supporter on Twitter, defends the banning of websites, saying in the case of Twitter it “is not to punish the Turkish users but Twitter itself”.

“This ban is targeting Twitter and giving a message: ‘If you do not comply with my ruling and ignore it then I will restrict your access to the users in Turkey’,” he says.

“Nobody has the right to show Turkey as a government applying censorship. They just have to respect the court’s decision. Respecting the court means respecting the users in Turkey,” he adds.

But should social media companies simply comply with court orders telling them to censor certain material? What about their users’ right to free expression?

“There is a big quality difference between the Twitter service that the American or British people are receiving and what Turkish people are,” says Mr Akdeniz.

“Ours is censored, our accounts can be held any time.”

He says the social media platforms comply with the ruling is because “they don’t want to be shut down, they don’t want to take that risk”.

“But maybe they should take that risk, because they are being bullied in Turkey … All around the world, people talk about corporate social responsibility, but then where is that responsibility in those companies?”

‘Menace to society’

The use of social media in Turkey has flourished over the past few years and has come to reflect the country’s vibrant and varied culture.

It came into its own in the summer of 2013, as a place to communicate and disseminate information during the Gezi Park protest.

Social media platforms became the alternatives to the mainstream media outlets, which were criticised for self-censorship and an pro-government slant.

But Mr Erdogan was not impressed. “Social media is the worst menace to society,” he said.

And yet, the AKP’s supporters attempted to turn it to their advantage, launching social media campaigns against the Gezi protestors.

Then the leaked audio recordings emerged, apparently revealing corruption in Mr Erdogan’s inner circle.

The AKP was trying to consolidate its power ahead of the local elections and the leak presented a threat.

Twitter and YouTube were promptly banned for 20 hours and Mr Erdogan vowed to “eradicate” the platforms.

There are now only weeks left until Turkey’s crucial parliamentary elections and tensions are already running high.

Social media should be a place for Turkish people to express themselves freely and democratically, but just how free it will be as the election approaches remains to be seen.

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