By Emma Sinclair-Webb
In the run up to the March 30th municipal elections, the government of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has closed down Twitter in the country.
On March 20th, Erdogan made an election speech in the western city of Bursa in which he threatened to “eradicate” what he called “Twitter Schmitter”. Then his office complained in a statement that Twitter had failed to abide by Turkish court orders calling for the removal of links in some tweets and that this might necessitate closure of the whole site.
Shortly afterwards, at around midnight local time, the Telecommunications Communication Directorate went ahead and closed down Twitter’s website in Turkey. The page that appears on the Twitter website states that the Directorate has applied a “protection measure” (closure order) on the basis of a March 20th Ankara prosecutor’s decision. Three earlier court orders are also mentioned and represent decisions to remove particular content following complaints without providing any detail.
This is another fundamental blow to the freedom of expression in Turkey and the right to access information, and the closure order should be immediately lifted. The move further signals that the Turkish government has taken an anti-democratic turn which significantly sets back its human rights record.
If in practice it is easily possible to get around the ban and access Twitter by using proxy servers, that should not be regarded as a comfort. Prime Minister Erdogan’s move spells the lengths he will go to censor the flood of politically damaging wiretap recordings circulating on social media. These implicate his family and government ministers in corruption, reveal his willingness to press media bosses to censor news coverage, and show one of his close aides ordering the arrest of a journalist. Such material has been surfacing as links on Twitter accounts such as @haramzadeler333 and @başçalan in the wake of a corruption scandal that broke on December 17, 2013, and led to the resignation of four ministers.
The government has dismissed the corruption allegations and wiretaps as part of an “international conspiracy,” involving the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen and his followers inside the judiciary and police, to overthrow the prime minister.
Conspiracy or not, limiting freedom of speech is no way for the Turkish government to tackle a political crisis.
Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher with the Europe and Central Asia division, joined Human Rights Watch in 2007. She has worked on issues including police violence, accountability for enforced disappearances and killings by state perpetrators, the misuse of terrorism laws, and arbitrary detention. She was researcher on Turkey for Amnesty International from 2003-2007, and previously worked in publishing as a commissioning editor on books on history, culture, and politics in the Middle East and southeast Europe. She has degrees from Cambridge University and Birkbeck College, London, and speaks Turkish.