On again, off again: Understanding Turkey’s social media ‘problem’

Turkish internet users started the week with a countrywide ban on Twitter

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Turkish internet users started the week with a countrywide ban on Twitter and video-sharing website YouTube following a prosecutorial order. However, the bans were shortly lifted, with Twitter accessible by Monday evening and YouTube access opened up on Tuesday.

The order was based on the refusal of about 160 websites to remove controversial photographs and posts about two members of the outlawed far-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C).

On March 31, they took hostage Istanbul prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz, who was killed during the rescue operation.

More than a dozen media organizations and journalists also had their accreditation withheld for the funeral of Kiraz on April 1 because they published the photos.

The list of those media outlets were as follows: Hürriyet, Cumhuriyet, Bugün, Milat, Taraf and Zaman newspapers as well as CNN Türk, Bugün TV, Kanaltürk, İMC TV; Samanyolu TV, Cihan News Agency and Doğan News Agency.

Four Turkish newspapers –Hurriyet, Cumhuriyet, Posta and Bugun- faced a criminal investigation on April 2 for the same reason.

On late April 6, Istanbul’s 1st Criminal Court of Peace notified Turkey's Internet Service Providers Union, issued a warning to block access to Google's search engine, if images of slain prosecutor remain on the engine. However, Google remained intact from a possible closure, allegedly because it removed the content mentioned in the court ruling.

Gokhan Ahi, an Istanbul-based lawyer in telecommunications law, said this decision was illegal.

“Courts can only block [websites] if there’s some infringements against individual rights or the right to privacy. We should also consider last year’s Constitutional Court ruling,” Ahi told Al Arabiya News.

The government blocked Twitter last year on March 20 because the site did not remove leaked recordings of corruption allegations implicating government members and their families.

The ban was lifted early the following month after the country’s highest court ruled that the ban was illegal, arbitrary, and restricted the right to obtain information.

In a press briefing, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin criticized news outlets for publishing the hostage photos.

“What happened after the prosecutor’s killing is as grim as the incident itself. Those photos weren’t used by foreign media agencies. The demand from the prosecutor’s office is that these images not be used in any platforms. This is an obligation derived from a necessity. There would be no ban if those photos weren’t shared over and over again. This isn’t about restricting freedoms,” Kalin said.

Meanwhile, the hashtag #TwitterisblockedinTurkey has trended on Twitter, with users bypassing the ban by using a virtual private network (VPN).

Erkan Saka, a social media expert from Istanbul Bilgi University, said the government bans were a nationalistic reaction.

“This show off is mostly for the constituencies of the ruling AKP government,” Saka told Al Arabiya News, adding that this move was related to the forthcoming parliamentary elections on June 7.

“With VPN and other tools, citizens can easily circumvent the ban, at least at this stage, but the government intends to criminalize usage,” Saka added.

Istanbul-based social media user Batur Talu told Al Arabiya News: “This crackdown on Twitter shows that the government doesn’t tolerate freedom of speech and media even on virtual platforms. It tends to determine which ideas and expressions should appear on the media in order to better frame people’s perceptions.”

In February, Twitter released its transparency reports showing that out of 786 requests worldwide, Turkey alone accounted for 477 demands for content removal.

Twitter has about 11.5 million users in Turkey. Of 36.4 million internet users in the country, about 38 percent use YouTube and 15 percent use Twitter.

Ismail Caglar, director of media-communication researches from Ankara-based think-tank SETA, pointed out to the media ethics when deciding to feed readers with images about sensitive issues.

“During all similar situations in France during Charlie Hebdo or the video featuring a British journalist beheading by ISI[S], Twitter shut down related accounts and showing the video on the grounds that they are making terrorist propaganda, without any court ruling or governmental request,” Caglar told Al Arabiya News.

Caglar also said that this phenomenon should be seen as an example for Turkish media to abide by professional ethics that are based on universal standards and that forbids publishing images about terrorist acts.

“The relevant court ruling aimed for removing the relevant content, but as it was widespread enormously, an obligation occurred for shutting down the social media sites completely,” he added.

Cem Kucuk, a columnist from the pro-government Yeni Safak daily, agreed with the decision.

“When national security is at stake, all Western democracies act in this way. This is not something related to the media freedom of freedom of speech. It is something that the government ask from the relevant social media sites to respect its own concerns about national security. That’s all,” Kucuk told Al Arabiya News.

In March, parliament granted ministers and the prime minister extraordinary authority to order the removal or blocking of a website for reasons of national security and public order within a maximum of four hours, without a court decision.

In December, Transportation, Maritime Affairs and Communications Minister Lutfi Elvan said the constitution covered exceptional circumstances, including threats to national security and public order, which justify government restrictions on the right of communication.

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