Quilliam’s Research Intern Ariana Skipp considers the implications of growing restrictions on free expression in Turkey in Left Foot Forward.

On Thursday afternoon, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan blocked Twitter. This follows the internet law that passed through the Turkish parliament on 6 February 2014, which gave the government the right to strict internet controls and to block web pages almost immediately.

In his speech in Bursa, Erdogan stated, “We now have a court order. We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of Turkish Republic.”

Within hours, Erdogan had exercised this power to ban Twitter.

The Turkish government’s Communication Technologies Institution (BTK) claimed that Twitter was blocked based on three court rulings due to citizens complaining its breach of privacy. They said in a statement, “because there was no other choice, access to Twitter was blocked in line with court decisions to avoid the possible future victimization of citizens.”

Erdogan’s hatred of social media has been no secret, and it seems he is the citizen to which the BTK is referring. Erdogan’s speech in Bursa came after some Twitter users posted documents exhibiting evidence of his corrupt activities.

Erdogan claims his rivals abuse social media to portray him as taking part in fraudulent and unethical business deals, court cases, and other such activities. On 6 March, Erdogan threatened to block Facebook and YouTube by using the recently passed internet law but with YouTube becoming legal just in 2010, this would be a major set back to freedom of expression and speech.
Responses from Erdogan’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), have been extremely negative. Vice chairman of the CHP, Akif Hamzacebi, declared that he will file a criminal complaint against Erdogan on the basis of violations of personal freedoms.

President Abdullah Gul was also unhappy with Erdogan, announcing the ban as unacceptable. Fittingly, President Gul used Twitter himself to comment on the matter, saying “a total shutdown of social media platforms cannot be approved”, and later hoping that the ban would be short-lived.

Although Erdogan claimed he could not care less what the international community thinks, there have been significant concerns from the EU on the matter. The EU previously voiced uncertainties about fundamental rights in the Turkey Progress Report, released in October 2013. In this report, the EU concluded that “The law on the internet, which limits freedom of expression and restricts citizens’ right of access to information, needs to be revised in line with European standards.”

The EU enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fuele, expressed concerns about the recent issues on freedom of speech and expression in Turkey. Fuele tweeted “Being free to communicate and freely choose the means to do it is [a] fundamental EU value.”

Banning Twitter and other social platforms is not synonymous with the EU model, which, along with the recent troubled Turkish financial markets, deems EU-Turkey relations even more worrisome.

With the Snowden leaks, recent CIA spying scandals, and debates regarding filtering and bans in the UK, censorship of the internet is a growing global concern. However, with multiple ways around censorship such as general proxies, add-ons, and domain name settings (DNS) changing, blocking and filtering proves to be ineffective and counter-productive. This can be seen happening in the Turkish case – although Twitter is blocked, Turkish citizens are finding ways around the restriction.

Within hours of the Twitter ban, many in Turkey unearthed ways to keep their Twitter accounts active. By texting tweets, using proxy servers, or altering DNS, the Hurriyet newspaper – the highest circulation Turkish newspaper – reported that there had been 500,000 tweets in Turkey throughout the first ten hours of the Twitter ban.

Hurriyet is clearly on the side of the people, having published tips of how to avoid Twitter restrictions. Likewise, Twitter also demonstrated its alliance with such freedoms by offering advice as well in Turkish and English, informing users to send tweets using SMS.

With Erdogan’s poor response to protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park last year, magnified rumours of corruption, and now this latest desperate attempt to quash legitimate political opposition, the elections on 30 March will be a crucial test for his reputation and his decision on whether to run for presidency in August. Though Erdogan’s party, AKP, remains the strongest political force in Turkey, his personal reputation will increasingly be under the microscope.

This new effort on restricting freedoms affirms that viewing Turkey as the model for an Islamist-Democratic state is problematic. According to Freedom House regulations, placing limitations on user rights, content and access to internet qualifies a state to be deemed as ‘not free.’

If limitations on the freedom of expression and speech continue, Turkey will be faced with placement in the same ‘not free’ category as Iran and Saudi Arabia. And if Erdogan continues this path of self-preservation, there will not only be serious backlash nationally, but he will face stern criticism in the international realm, whether he ‘cares or not.’

Click here to read this article on Left Foot Forward.