In the New Turkey, Be Careful What You Tweet

Erdogan takes on Twitter.


The day after Christmas, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took to television to stand up for press freedom — specifically, to rebut charges that he’s an enemy of free speech. In his remarks, Erdogan spoke glowingly of his own benevolence towards journalists. “The press is so free in Turkey that one can make insults, slanders, defamation, racism and commit hate crimes that are not tolerated even in democratic countries,” he said. That supposed generosity doesn’t seem to extend to Twitter.

In October, a judge working on a major, long-running corruption probe of a group of former Erdogan cabinet members — an affair known as the December 17 scandal — decided to abruptly drop the investigation. In November, prominent Turkish journalist and television anchor Sedef Kabas tweeted:

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On Tuesday, government authorities detained Kabas at her home. The charges, according to an interview she gave to a Turkish newspaper: “targeting people who are involved in anti-terror operations.” In other words, Turkish authorities say, her tweet put the unnamed judge in actual danger.

Kabas is now on probation and scheduled to testify on Jan. 5, according to reports; her tablet, computer, and cell phone remain in police custody. Mehmet Baransu, another journalist, was also reportedly detained for tweeting criticism of an Erdogan advisor.

Twitter is proving to be a growing sore spot for Erdogan. As Foreign Policy’s Vanessa H. Larson reported earlier this month, the mysterious, anonymous account Fuat Avni routinely tweets out accurate predictions of upcoming arrests and media raids, including the recent crackdown and arrest on those affiliated with prominent opposition media figure Fethullah Gulen. Many believe the account is run by a government insider. As Larson wrote, journalists at Turkey’s Zaman newspaper knew of an impending raid on their offices thanks to the account, “fil[ing] stories on their surreal predicament shortly before police arrived.”

Wherever the tweets are coming from, they and those of outspoken critics like Kabas and Baransu represent yet another challenge to Erdogan’s effort to lock down dissent and criticism and the mediums activists and journalists use to disseminate it. Erdogan’s government jailed more journalists than any other country in 2012 and 2013, and he didn’t let up in 2014. Unfortunately for the country’s reporters, 2015 looks like it could be even worse.

Adem Altan / AFP

Siddhartha Mahanta is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. A Texas native and graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, he has also worked for Mother Jones, National Journal, and the PBS Newshour. Twitter: @sidhubaba