Turkey’s Twitter Wars Heat Up

As the Turkish government continues to squeeze freedom of expression, many Turks have found themselves resorting increasingly to social media in order to learn what’s going on in their country. (92 percent of Turkey’s online population now uses social media, the highest share in the world.) But this refuge is now coming under severe pressure ...

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images
OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

As the Turkish government continues to squeeze freedom of expression, many Turks have found themselves resorting increasingly to social media in order to learn what’s going on in their country. (92 percent of Turkey’s online population now uses social media, the highest share in the world.) But this refuge is now coming under severe pressure as well. And the trend is particularly noticeable in the case of Twitter.

The problems with Twitter started in earnest on March 21, when the government suddenly blocked access to the popular service just ahead of local elections. The reason: a flood of leaked recordings that seemed to implicate high-ranking officials in massive corruption. The anonymous leakers relied heavily on Twitter to publicize the recordings, prompting an enraged Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (now president) to vow that he would "wipe out" the microblogging network. The Constitutional Court later overturned the ban, but that hasn’t prevented the government from working hard ever since to restrict freedom of speech on the Internet.

The government’s strategy for cracking down on Twitter relies heavily on removal requests. In the first half of this year alone, Turkish officials asked the network to remove content 186 times, as well as issuing over 60 court orders directing Twitter to take down messages due to "defamation" and the "violations of personal rights" of both private citizens and government officials. Twitter blocked 17 accounts (mostly belonging to users tweeting with pseudonyms) and removed 183 tweets as a result of these requests. Though critics assail Twitter for knuckling under to government demands, it’s not quite that simple. Twitter broadly complies with legal decisions in the countries where it operates, and the Turkish government has been happy to exploit this to its own advantage.

Now, however, the Turkish authorities’ latest demand regarding Celil Sagir, the managing editor of the newspaper Today’s Zaman, is adding an ominous new twist to the story. Last month Sagir received an email from Twitter warning him that his account faces possible removal. Twitter attached a criminal complaint filed against Sagir that listed various ways in which he had violated the Turkish Constitution and argued that access to his feed could therefore be restricted.

The email from Twitter didn’t name the plaintiffs, but Sagir learned through the court that the complaints were filed on behalf of President Erdogan, his son Bilal, his daughter Sumeyye, and one of Erdogan’s advisers. The litigants claimed that the journalist’s tweets aimed to "incite hatred and animosity" against Erdogan, his family members, and his adviser, and that the tweets subjected them to public humiliation. The Erdogan family not only asked the court to order Twitter to block access to all accounts linked to Sagir’s handle (@csagir), but also, extraordinarily enough, all future accounts that might be opened by the journalist. A Turkish court agreed, ruling that Sagir’s Twitter activity should be shut down — the first time that this has happened to a declared account (as opposed to an anonymous one).

Sagir, who mainly posts sarcastic and critical tweets about government officials, insists that he has never insulted anyone: "If I’ve insulted them [Erdogan and his close circle], why don’t they open a defamation lawsuit?" he told me. "Instead they’re trying to silence me by shutting down my Twitter account." His opponents, he noted, could have requested removal of the offending tweets, as has been done in other cases, but instead they demanded that his entire feed be blocked, a move he described as "yet another form of censorship and a blow to freedom of expression. If the court decision sets a precedent, it will be tantamount to the closure of every account that speaks out against the government."

Twitter told Sagir that it has filed an objection with the Turkish court, claiming that the case contravenes the freedom of the press, a fundamental right protected by the constitution. Sagir’s own appeal was denied on Oct. 17.

Government critics point out the controversial nature of these courts, which were recently established after Erdogan and his political allies railroaded new legislation through the parliament. Critics note that appeals can only be made in the same court in which the case was previously heard, which means appeals often land before the same judge who issued the original ruling.

Efe Kerem Sozeri, a Turkish sociologist at VU University in Amsterdam, has been tracking Turkish government efforts to restrict Twitter. Sozeri says that, even when Twitter opts to appeal court decisions ordering the removal of content, the company usually ends up withholding the disputed tweets regardless. In one recent case, Twitter "suggested" to the owner of the @madigudisi account that he delete a critical tweet about Minister of Communications Lütfi Elvan — even though a local court had already declared the remark protected under the right to free speech.

Sozeri notes with dismay that the government has even gone after accounts with fewer than 100 followers, apparently because the users in question dared to criticize Minister Elvan, who has played a prominent role in the government’s recent censorship efforts. "We faced tweets that threatened our national security," Elvan said during the recent anti-government protests. "We did what was necessary and a considerable portion of those tweets were blocked by Twitter." Erdogan himself recently made his position devastatingly clear to a delegation of visitors from the press freedom watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists: "I am increasingly against the Internet every day."

Meanwhile, the ruling AK Party has hired some 12,000 new people to work in its "social media army" (otherwise known as "AK Trolls"). They’ll do just about anything to protect the reputation of Erdogan and his government, up to and including threatening opposition political figures and journalists. When Spiegel Online‘s Istanbul correspondent filed a story titled "Erdogan, go to hell" (a quote from a protestor after the mining disaster earlier this year), the AK Trolls swarmed into action. Within hours of the article’s publication, the journalist had received more than 10,000 threatening tweets, including some 100 death threats. By the next day, his enemies had plastered his photo across social media and pro-government newspapers. As a result of the threats, Spiegel Online could no longer secure the safety of its reporter. The company pulled him out.

It’s probably unrealistic to expect a company like Twitter to resist this government juggernaut by itself. So far, Sozeri notes, Twitter remains "far more accountable and transparent" than the Turkish government itself. But that room for maneuver is clearly shrinking.

Berivan Orucoglu is the Turkey blogger for Transitions and a fellow at the McCain Institute’s Next Generation Leaders Program. Read the rest of her posts here.

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