- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
"Democratic life demands sacrifice": Seven Turkish newspapers, each of which theoretically makes its own editorial decisions, decided to pluck that line from a speech by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last summer to use as their main front-page headline. It happened again earlier this month, when 10 Turkish papers all chose to feature another line from an Erdogan speech, in which he vowed that the people "will foil the games [played against his government] at the ballot box."
While Turkey’s press is legally free, it is also controlled. Erdogan’s government has imposed billion-dollar fines on media holdings hostile to the government, issued blunt instructions to editors about how to tailor their coverage, deported critical journalists — and when all else fails, thrown reporters in prison, transforming Turkey into the world’s leading jailer of journalists.
All of this helps explain why Erdogan took the extraordinary step today of blocking Twitter. This is not a government that tolerates media it can’t control — and there’s nothing harder to control than millions of Turks self-publishing news about the country at a click of a button. While Twitter hasn’t commented on the ban, the company took the unusual step of issuing guidelines for how to evade the ban, telling Turkish users that they can post tweets via cellular text-messaging. Fittingly, the announcement came from the Twitter feed of the company’s policy arm:
Turkish users: you can send Tweets using SMS. Avea and Vodafone text START to 2444. Turkcell text START to 2555.
— Policy (@policy) March 20, 2014
"Twitter, schmitter!" Erdogan said at a campaign rally Thursday. "We will wipe out all of these…The international community can say this, can say that. I don’t care. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is."
On Friday, the U.S. State Department condemned the government’s decision to block access to the service. "An independent and unfettered media is an essential element of democratic, open societies," spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement. "Today’s shutdown of Twitter is contrary to Turkey’s own expressed desire to uphold the highest standards of democracy."
Erdogan’s crackdown on Twitter was likely precipitated by recent leaks of recordings that allegedly show corruption at the highest ranks of his government. One of those wiretapped conversations purports to be a discussion between Erdogan and his son about how to hide large sums of money. Another allegedly shows the prime minister browbeating an editor for not firing a critical columnist. These wiretaps appear to have been released as part of Erdogan’s feud with Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose followers are thought to include many top officials within the country’s police force. Erdogan has denied the authenticity of the most damaging leaks and hasn’t commented on others.
The Turkish government can pressure large swathes of the print media to ignore the leaks. However, there’s nothing it can do to prevent Twitter users from sharing and commenting on the wiretapped conversations.
"The leaked tapes on corruption are being watched, reposted, and shared millions of times," said Engin Onder, a member of @140journos, a group of university students who report on protests across Turkey using Twitter to circumvent what they see as the failure of the country’s mainstream media. "It’s being said that new tapes are upcoming and can cause the governing party to lose significant votes [in local elections later this month]."
Because of the constraints under which the official media operates, Turks are devoted Twitter users — the country ranks among Twitter’s 10 most active markets in the world. And Erdogan’s ban, predictably, incited a predictable backlash among devoted tweeps. The hashtag #TwitterisblockedinTurkey quickly started trending across the globe, while there was no large drop in tweets from Turkey, as users quickly found ways to circumvent the ban.
— beko (@bekirbasarozer) March 21, 2014
More importantly, the ban also appears to have exacerbated divisions within Erdogan’s party. President Abdullah Gul, who visited the headquarters of Twitter in 2012, said a ban on the site was "unacceptable" — and to add insult to injury, he made his comments via his Twitter account.
Gul isn’t alone. Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Ankara and another member of the ruling party, also continued to tweet. His first message after the ban was announced could’ve been interpreted as support or defiance — whatever he meant, it was retweeted thousands of times by Twitter users within Turkey:
— ?brahim Melih Gökçek (@06melihgokcek) March 21, 2014