Turkey, where individual freedom meets censorship in the age of social media

By Georgiana Constantin | May 1, 2014

In his visit to Ankara, Turkey on Monday, German President Joachim Gauck talking to reporters was critical of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for government moves to ban certain web sites. “Is it necessary to ban Twitter or YouTube?” he asked. “Does this really further democracy?”

Last month, criticizing Turkey’s court rulings, which declared the bans on Twitter and YouTube illegal, Erdoğan said, “I don’t find it right and patriotic that the Constitutional Court has adopted such a decision.” In an effort to make critics more tolerant and understanding of his cause, he went on to say, “While they are protecting an American company, our national and moral values are being disregarded.”

The ban on Twitter came after Mr. Erdoğan found that there were recordings of corruption allegations about him and some members of his family. While such actions might have been considered illegal, the fact that the immediate reaction of the state was to have the social media websites banned can be construed as a serious threat to freedom. Almost as a reminder of the days people spent surviving under opressive totalitarian regimes,  “No sooner was the ban announced than millions of users swapped tips on how to beat it. The number of in-country tweets soared, with the hashtag #Erdoganisadictator leading the list,” the Economist reported.  “Turkey then became the first government to block Google DNS, which is a popular way of evading online censorship. Users turned to virtual private networks for continued access.”

Adding to the bleak and dangerous portrait of recent events, BBC reported that “following the Twitter ban, the government had also banned access to YouTube, after a video on the website appeared to reveal top officials discussing how to stage an undercover attack inside Syria. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is apparently heard asking about the possibility of sending tanks in.” While the prospect of Turkey sending tanks into Syria and staging attacks is undoubtedly a worrying one, censorship is far from being a prescribed protective measure for the country or its people.

Since the emergence of the December 2013 corruption scandal, the Turkish government’s suppression of freedom of speech has only escalated. A Freedom House Special Report entitled Democracy in Crisis: Corruption, Media, and Power in Turkey reveals in its executive summary, “Since November, events in Turkey have taken a severe turn for the worse. […]. Thousands of police officers and prosecutors have been fired or relocated across the country. Amendments to the Internet regulation law proposed by the government would make it possible for officials to block websites without court orders. The government is also threatening the separation of powers by putting the judiciary, including criminal investigations, under direct control of the Ministry of Justice.”

If one is to think in terms of socio-political realities, Turkey is a member of NATO and is considered a democratic country. It has strong ties to the West, including the United States, and harbors hopes of joining the European Union. Among such devout democratic ambitions and apparent aim towards societal freedom, one cannot help but ask how Turkey can tolerate ongoing vehemently outspoken censorship? Reporters Without Borders (RWB), the non-profit organization dedicated to freedom of expression and freedom of information, rates Turkey 154 of 179 countries in their 2013 Freedom Index. According to RWB “some 8,170 Internet websites are currently inaccessible either as the result of a court decision or at the initiative of the TIB [Turkish Supreme Council for Telecommunications and IT]. In June 2010, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) estimated that ‘over 5,000 sites’ had been blocked in the last two years. In 2009, it had estimated 3,700, some for ‘arbitrary and political reasons.’” In addition, intimidation, mass firings, wiretappings, imprisonment of journalists and other such actions, beg the question: are we still talking about democracy in the way that it is traditionally viewed and defined, as the “rule of the people?”

As RWB secretary-general Christophe Deloire declared, “this extreme and absurd act of censorship, fraught with consequences for the flow of information and democratic debate, is worthy of the world’s most repressive regimes.”

Joel Simon, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote in a letter to Erdogan addressed to the Turkish Embassy on April 9th stating, “As a founding member of the Council of Europe, Turkey is held by the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights and liable to the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. But many of the measures and laws your government has adopted clearly violate these obligations. Despite being a candidate for EU membership, Turkey has distanced itself from the criteria of rule of law, democracy, and human rights that it has pledged to attain.” The letter also states that “Turkey’s ambitions to be a regional leader cannot be met in a context of increased censorship and intolerance to dissent.” The Committee to Protect Journalists urges Prime Minister Erdoğan, not to “miss this historic opportunity for Turkey to act as a model of democracy and tolerance in the region” and to “resume Turkey’s march toward the advanced democracy.”

On the other side of the argument, Prime Minister Erdoğan, defending his position and trying to explain his stance, condemned those “who do not hesitate to spy on the most senior government officials” and who “now threaten the security of the state.” He added, “This has nothing to do with freedoms. Freedom does mean violating a person’s privacy. And sending state secrets to international addresses is not freedom either.” While his point is a valid one, invasion of privacy being far from an expression of freedom, how can limiting the very concept a democratic country is supposed to stand for through censorship possibly be helping the cause of liberty?

It is hard to imagine the work of so many people dedicated to democracy and progress and the hopes and aspirations of a nation all of a sudden being put aside, ignored, or even challenged for the sake of the few and to the detriment of the many. Even in the middle of this scandal though, hope lingers and encourages people to fight for their freedoms. One can only hope that this is merely a slight setback for Turkey and the will of the many will come out victorious.

Georgiana Constantin is a law school graduate who has studied European, International and Romanian law. Her thesis on the UN and global governance was completed at the Romanian-American University in Bucharest. She is currently a Masters candidate for International and European Law at the Nicolae Titulescu University in Bucharest. Ms. Constantin, who is based in Romania, is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.