Turkey: Pre-election Twitter shutdown brings internet freedom to a new low
The first ever tweet was sent eight years ago today. No-one will be celebrating this landmark on the social media site in Turkey, however: the government has just shut it down. Amnesty International calls on the Turkish authorities to immediately reverse the decision to block the social media site.
“The decision to block Twitter is an unprecedented attack on internet freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey. The draconian measure, brought under Turkey’s restrictive internet law, shows the lengths the government is prepared to go to prevent anti-government criticism,” said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s researcher on Turkey.
The blocking order came into force on Thursday, shortly before midnight, following Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s pledge earlier in the day at an election rally to “wipe out” Twitter. Social media users in Turkey condemned the move and more than a million tweets were reportedly sent in the hours following the blocking order as users found ways to get around it.
The move, a blunt attack on Turkey’s citizens’ right to share and receive information comes just over a week before key local elections in Turkey. The site had been used to share a series of alleged tapped phone conversations substantiating claims of Turkish government corruption and interference in business and media.
Twitter has a reported 10 million users in Turkey. Use of the micro-blogging site increased rapidly during last summer’s Gezi Park protests with people using it to share views and receive information not reflected in the mainstream media with close business links to the authorities. The Turkish government attacked social media companies and users, with the Prime Minister referring to Twitter as “a scourge”. The attacks formed part of a broader policy to silence and smear those speaking out against the government’s crackdown on the protest movement, including doctors, lawyers and journalists.
“Social media has long been a thorn in the side of the government. Not only is it well used by critics but the owners of social media sites are seemingly immune from threats and intimidation meted out to the national media,” said Andrew Gardner.
“The decision to block access to Twitter represents an ominous sign of how Turkey’s government is using the amended internet law to control online content. This amounts to court-sanctioned attacks on freedom of expression.”
Internet censorship has been widely practiced in Turkey with pro-Kurdish news sites and gay chat rooms among those targeted by the authorities. YouTube was also blocked between 2007 and 2010 because of videos posted on the site allegedly “insulting the memory of Atatürk”, the founder of the Turkish Republic. Google sites remain blocked in Turkey despite a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that the order violates the right to freedom of expression.
In February this year the government passed further restrictive amendments to Turkey’s internet law which threaten the right to freedom of expression and privacy. Amnesty International called for the amendments to be scrapped and instead for the law to be brought in line with international human rights standards.
Items posted on social media including twitter have also led to unfair criminal prosecutions violating the right to freedom of expression. In Izmir, 29 young people are currently on trial for “encouraging people to break the law” over tweets they sent about the Gezi Park protests. Content shared via social media is also being used to substantiate a prosecution brought under anti-terrorism laws against several members of Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella organization that played a leading role in the protest movement.
The Twitter block was enacted by the state telecommunications department following an order from the Istanbul Prosecutor’s office under powers granted by Turkey’s Anti-terrorism Law and additional court orders. The government cited Twitter’s failure to comply with court orders to remove content posted on the site as the reason for website’s closure.