Media observers remain concerned about media freedom in Turkey, despite the prime minister backing down on a controversial threat to ban Facebook and YouTube.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week backtracked on a threat to ban the popular websites after President Abdullah Gul ruled out such a possibility.
Yet despite Erdogan's public statements on the matter, media observers continue to be worried.
“We are extremely worried by these speeches by Erdogan, and we are also more worried that these are credible threats… the government has been multiplying legal initiatives [and] jeopardizing freedom of information over the past few months,” Johann Bihr, head of Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders told Al Arabiya News.
“Regardless of the speeches... there is a trend which is obvious toward more censorship both in the traditional media and online,” added Bihr.
Erdogan’s threat has been linked to attempts to prevent secretly wiretapped recordings from being leaked on the Internet, in an ongoing corruption scandal that he and members of his government are fighting.
Erdogan had denied all the allegations and said the recordings were fake, claiming they are the work of an influential U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen's followers.
In his latest comments, Erdogan told pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper that his government would fight “fabricated and dubbed” recordings leaked on the internet, but admitted that a total shutdown of social media websites was “out of the question,” echoing president Gul’s previously made statements.
A number of leaked recordings have been released on YouTube, and gone viral through social media websites.
“Of course it may sound absolutely extreme to block Facebook and YouTube, but unfortunately it is true that the government has been eager since the corruption scandal erupted in December, to block information at the source, and especially to enforce online censorship,” said Bihr.
According to Bacir Atacan, professor of international relations at Edirne University in Turkey, the leaked recordings are not of the same value as they used to be, because it has become a matter of quantity over quality.
“If they [those who released the recordings] had only released tapes on the corruption, and did not continue releasing more leaks about [Erdogan’s] son and the other topics, then they would’ve been more credible… and would’ve had a large impact on Erdogan’s government, but now the public is leaning towards believing Erdogan more than Gulen,” he told Al Arabiya.
Atacan said that Erdogan still has the upper hand in the country because of his “persuasive skills, and is capable of convincing the Turkish people and gain new loyalists, especially after releasing the former army chief and political detainees that were held in Turkish prisons,” he added.
Turkey’s parliament last month passed a law that increased government controls over the internet. Some commentators say that Erdogan's threat of a further crackdown on social media sites is linked to the upcoming local elections.
“The threat to shut down Facebook and YouTube is a rhetorical exercise that aims, in my opinion, to energize a specific constituency during the election period,” Joe Khalil, an associate professor in residence at Northwestern University and visiting research fellow at the London School of Economics, told Al Arabiya News.
Khalil, who was in Turkey last week, had bigger concerns about Turkey than the threatened ban of the websites. “The recent law, media ownership, the perception of diversity, the prosecution of media personnel are more serious and effective means than threatening to shut down Facebook and YouTube,” he said.
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