Blocking Social Media and the Restriction of Democracy in Turkey

Ashby Henningsen, UMBC:

For many years, Turkey has stood as a unique outlier within a politically and civilly turbulent region. Until Tunisia’s systemic shift during the Arab Spring, many considered Turkey to be the lone example of a stable democratic government in the ideologically charged Middle East, surrounded as it has been by authoritarian regimes and extremist organizations. Yet the country has not escaped its fair share of struggles to live up to democratic principles. Even today, the country continues to undergo governmental backlash against civil liberties, often in the name of state security or well-being. The most recent example stems from a hostage situation involving a former government attorney and extremist militants in the city of Istanbul. In the incident’s wake, Turkey’s government imposed a block on several news and social media websites that had circulated photos of the hostage situation, compelling several of them to remove the photos from their online activity. While Turkish officials have argued the block as necessary to deter extremist messages online, the government’s response would appear to fit an ongoing trend of restriction upon political and civil freedoms by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The original incident involved Mehmet Selim Kiraz, a Turkish government prosecutor who had been involved in the investigation of a Turkish teenage protester’s death. On March 31, two members of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), a banned communist movement, took Kiraz hostage inside an Istanbul courtroom. The militants posted photos of Kiraz with a gun held to his head on various social media websites and threatened to kill Kiraz unless the police allegedly involved in the teenager’s death confessed to murder. After six hours of negotiations, police stormed the building upon hearing gunshots. Both militants as well as Kiraz were shot during the ensuing firefight; the two hostage-takers died during the firefight, while Kiraz died after being taken to a hospital [1]. After the incident, news agencies and social media websites continued to circulate the online photos of Kiraz. In response, Turkish officials ordered that national Internet providers block several of these websites [2].

In the eyes of some observers, the government reaction to the photo’s online circulation reflects legitimate ethical concerns. According to Turkish journalist and former journalism professor Ahmet Sik, those websites and news agencies that published the photo of Kiraz should have blurred his face because he had been held against his will and out of respect for his family. Spokesmen for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office have expressed similar critiques of the media’s handling of the photos, citing the emotional duress of Kiraz’s family due to the photo’s public viral dissemination. Those same spokesmen have also cited state security concerns as motivation for stemming and reversing the photos’ online presence. One spokesman for Erdogan’s office, Ibrahim Kalin, compared the blocked websites’ handling of the photos to “spreading terrorist propaganda” [3]. The reaction by some of the blocked social media sites and news organizations, such as Twitter and Facebook, to remove the photos from their online content, could be interpreted as a concession to such arguments [4].

Yet at the same time, other observers have criticized as the latest example of an increasing constriction upon press and expression freedoms by Turkey’s government under the AKP. In an editorial published following the hostage incident, the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet condemned the government-imposed Internet blocks as “reminiscent of practices particular to third world regimes.” It also argued that “a democracy with the freedom of the press cannot accommodate a prime minister allocating himself the authority to punish newspapers, correspondents, photojournalists and cameramen…” Outside observers have expressed their own disapproval: Sweden’s former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Carl Bildt tweeted that “Turkey is really damaging itself by laws that allow prosecutors to shut down Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.” The charges against Erdogan’s government would seem well-founded, as Turkey has undergone an intensifying crackdown on independent media and civil liberties related to public expression. The past week marks the second time in just over a year that Turkey has cracked down on the country’s Twitter access, the first time after Twitter spread audio recording implicating public officials in a major corruption scandal. Turkish officials have also suppressed international news websites, including the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, for allegedly disrespecting Islamic values [5]. These actions have collectively fueled a perception of Turkey as aggressive, if not overtly hostile, to Internet access and expression.

Unfortunately, speech and press freedoms are not the only institutions being confined by Turkish political leaders. Other aspects of the country’s civil and political life have found themselves increasingly hemmed in as well. Citizens’ relationships with their police have gradually deteriorated in recent years, as Erdogan has increased the polices’ powers to pursue terrorism suspects and muffle radical movements such as the DHKP-C. In the process, however, authorities have cracked down more stringently upon political opposition voices and public dissenters. Other police-empowering measures have included bills that limit the judiciary’s ability to check police actions, allow police to search individuals without warrants, and decrease legal limits upon officers’ ability to seize private property during investigations. [6]. The government under Erdogan and the AKP have also targeted public assembly and protest rights. Protesters have found themselves subject to harsher and more unrestrained reactions by police and internal security forces, as the 2013 Gezhi Park demonstrations demonstrate. The AKP-controlled government has even blurred checks and balances between the branches of government. In the aftermath of a major corruption scandal in 2013, which involved allegations of money-laundering by several federal ministers’ sons, the state experienced an unsettling upheaval, with Erdogan claiming a conspiracy against the government. His cabinet and administration have since responded by imposing greater control upon the judiciary, enforcing tighter regulations on government prosecutors and judges alike [7].

For much of the past century, Turkey has maintained a distinctly stable democratic system. The AKP government of the past approximate decade, however, has reversed this environment pluralism and liberalism in a concentrated effort to consolidate power. Erdogan and AKP leaders seem driven to manipulate Turkish politics to their advantage, if the growing stranglehold on citizen rights offers any indication. This trend of authoritarianism even impedes ordinary Turkish citizens’ ability to access and utilize global social media and news forums, as the series of events following the Kiraz hostage crisis show. Regardless of the overall effectiveness of government-imposed blocks on sites such as Twitter and Facebook, the current administration’s seeming penchant for such intrusive measures reflects a willingness to override the rule of law and independent expression that are crucial to healthy democracy. Perhaps in time, mounting civil opinion against this undemocratic trajectory will reach a turning point, at which domestic opposition will finally pressure Erdogan and the AKP to restore equilibrium between society and state. Until then, the Kiraz hostage crisis bears troubling implications for Turkish democracy’s future.










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