Story Publication logo March 23, 2014

Turkey vs. Twitter


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Before a crowd of supporters at a campaign rally on Thursday afternoon in the city of Bursa—about a two-hour ferry ride from Istanbul—Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, vowed to ban Twitter. The threat came in the middle of a particularly fiery speech, even for Erdoğan, who wields a nuclear arsenal of angry declarations and allegations. "We now have a court order," he said. "We'll eradicate Twitter. I don't care what the international community says. They will see the power of the Turkish Republic."

Just before midnight, as though yielding directly to the force of Erdoğan's fury, Turkey became one of only two countries in the world to block Twitter entirely. (The other is China.) Four separate court orders prevent Turkish Internet service providers from connecting to Twitter's servers, making it impossible to access the service.

Twitter has been a target of Erdoğan's increasing anger since May of 2013, when the social-media platform was used to help organize the anti-government protests that spread from Istanbul's Gezi Park throughout Turkey. Back then, he called Twitter a "scourge." Even before Gezi, individuals were occasionally prosecuted for tweets that were considered blasphemous or were found to "incite hatred." In February, the Azeri journalist Mahir Zeynalov was deported from Turkey for two tweets. When a controversial investigation into government corruption, launched in December, was effectively blocked in the courts, information described as "suppressed evidence" began to be leaked online by opponents of Erdoğan, often using Twitter. One particularly explosive recording purports to feature an anxious conversation between Erdoğan and his son Bilal about hiding millions of dollars from investigators.

A pamphlet called "Everybody Should Know These Facts," recently distributed throughout Istanbul by Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.), warns readers to beware of false news that is spread on Twitter—where, Erdoğan alleged last month, his government was being assailed by a "robot lobby." It's obvious that the Prime Minister views Twitter as a serious threat to his leadership. It's harder to know why he thinks blocking it is a good move.

This morning, when I reached Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Istanbul's Bilgi University and an expert in cyberlaw, he was at a conference in Ankara on Internet freedom. "Blocking access to Twitter is the worst kind of censorship one can imagine," he wrote in an e-mail. "Absence of these social media platforms will be seen as a significant democratic deficit in Turkey. Certainly, it casts a dark shadow over Turkey's democratization process and potential EU membership." What it does not do, unfortunately for Erdoğan, is prevent people from using Twitter.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, fourteen per cent of Turkey's eighty million people use Twitter—a relatively high figure for a country where only forty-five per cent of the population uses the Internet. Shortly after news outlets reported the ban, articles about how to circumvent it began to circulate widely, and the hashtags #twitterisblockedinturkey and #turkeyblockedtwitter were among Twitter's trending keywords worldwide. Jack Dorsey, Twitter's co-founder, retweeted the company's advice—in Turkish—about how to post tweets using S.M.S., while other Turks on Twitter sang the praises of their V.P.N. services, which bypass local Internet providers. According to a company that tracks Twitter use in Turkey, more than half a million tweets were posted in the first ten hours after the ban took effect, roughly in line with normal daily activity. Even members of the A.K.P. appeared to breach the ban, including Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, who announced his campaign schedule on Twitter.

Among ordinary users, anger mixed with mockery. Many people posted a drawing of Erdoğan spraying a black cloud of insecticide at the blue bird that is Twitter's logo. Another popular illustration turned the white crescent on the Turkish flag into a Pac-Man about to eat the bird. A photo of Erdoğan on the phone has the Prime Minister asking the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, "I'm blocking Twitter. Then what?" Representatives from the European Union and the United States have already condemned the ban, as have human-rights groups—but Erdoğan claims not to care about the international community.

Among Erdoğan's critics and among journalists in Turkey, the ban only serves to demonstrate how tone-deaf the A.K.P. has become in its zeal for message control. The move against Twitter looks desperate and, given how accessible the service remains, futile—the sort of clumsy measure that authoritarian leaders often take as they witness their power draining away. (The last time I woke up to news of Twitter being blocked was three years ago, in Cairo, when it was ordered by Hosni Mubarak.) But the ban also highlights a disturbing trend in Erdoğan's attitude toward the opposition, and signals that the authoritarian tendencies that surfaced during last year's Gezi protests are only growing stronger. Local elections are set to be held in nine days, and the atmosphere is tense.

Yesterday, before the ban went into effect, the journalist and author Mustafa Akyol wrote about the A.K.P.'s reëlection campaign for the news site Al-Monitor. In the article, called "Erdoğan's Great Patriotic War," Akyol dissects a campaign video that in grand, dramatic strokes implies that there are forces inside Turkey that are intent on dismantling the nation, and only Erdoğan, along with the unwavering support of Turkish citizens, can stop them. "No words are spoken other than Erdoğan's excerpt from the national anthem," Akyol says, "but for all Turks who see it, the message is all too obvious: Erdoğan's political opponents are not only attacking him, they are attacking the nation itself. Turkish patriots must unite against these most wicked of enemies."

In February, the Turkish parliament passed a bill, which President Abdullah Gül later signed into law, that gave the government broad control over the Internet, including the ability to block sites without a court order and to collect and retain user histories. When the law was first passed, I interviewed Geoffrey King and Nina Ognianova, of the Committee to Protect Journalists. They were both dismayed by the new law, and, though Twitter was still unblocked, it was already clear that online speech was not entirely free. At that point, China was the only country still blocking Twitter, and neither King nor Ognianova anticipated a complete ban in Turkey—which, after all, still hoped to join the E.U. "Losing a platform like Twitter, even if it's replaced by another, is a disaster for both regular citizens and professional journalists," King told me. In a separate conversation, Ognianova was equally direct. "In the past few years, Turkey has gone from a country that's been considered a regional hope to a country that's now considered a regional concern," she said. "That's characterized by a shrinking space for freedom of expression."


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