Turks Tweet Their Rage at Government’s Twitter Ban

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

The decision of the Turkish government to block the social media platform Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) across the country did not happen in a vacuum. During mass demonstrations that took place in Istanbul last summer, he labeled social media society’s “worst menace.” On February 28, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan accused a “robot lobby” of targeting the government through Twitter. The escalation of the Turkish government’s campaign to curtail its people’s right to free expression has seemingly progressed quickly; Erdoğan announced his intention block Twitter — a means of communication that was essential in spreading information for and images of the Occupy Gezi protests — only twelve hours before the ban was implemented just after midnight in Turkey on Thursday. But in reality, the groundwork was laid months and years ago.

Erdoğan appears to be the driving force behind the ban, using a court order to suppress allegations of corruption that have been brought against the prime minister and his government. “Twitter, mwitter!” he reportedly told supporters at a rally on Thursday, according to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News. “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 the Turkish Republic.” But despite the fact he has justified the move by pointing to a Turkish court order that demanded the social media platform take down links that had allegedly insulted Turkish citizens; and, despite the fact he has said he does not care what the international community thinks, the attempted blockage of Twitter has been condemned by the world and even caused a rift between the country’s prime minister and its president, Abdullah Gül.

The timing of the ban is key; municipal elections are scheduled for March 30. Blocking such a popular social media platform is indicative of the broader problems facing Turkish society and reflects the growing insecurity of Erdoğan and his allies.

Along with his Islamist AK —— or Justice and Development in English — Party, Erdoğan was swept into power in 2002, following decades of secular leadership and frequent military coups. In general, Turkish citizens found his pro-business and pro-European Union policies appealing. But there also have been signs that his government may have authoritarian leanings. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey jailed the most journalists of any other country in the world last year, and as Al Jazeera has reported, critics of the ruling party say AKP has used claims of secular, anti-government conspiracy to jail its opponents.

Erdoğan’s tenure as prime minister will end in 2015 as the Turkish constitution limits him to two terms. But he is expected to try to take over the presidency this year, where he could harness his party’s political power to strengthen the office. And political power he has in plenty; through the delivery of rapid economic growth as well as jobs, voters have allowed him to shape determine what kind of democracy the Muslim nation of 74 million people will become. His critics have accused Erdoğan of Putinism as he has held office longer than any other Turkish leader since Ataturk, who became country’s first president. Traditionally, the Turkish president is more of a figurehead position, and for those Turkish citizens, especially those who fear a slow Islamization of the country’s largely secular society — his hunger for power is concerning.

Those concerned citizens were given more reason to worry about government power in May of last year, when the government announced its plan to remake Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park into a shopping mall modeled after an Ottoman-era military barracks. The city’s residents not only resented the change because the shopping mall would destroy one of the nicest green spaces in Istanbul, but it would be an acknowledgement to the themes of Erdoğan’s tenure: Islamist nationalism and capitalism. Thousands of demonstrators flocked to the park, and police responded to the anti-government protests with a crackdown that killed at least eight people. It was in these protests that the origins of the current unrest is most immediately rooted.

The Occupy Gezi protests were a clear challenge to Erdoğan’s authority, and Twitter was an obvious tool used by protesters to communicate. They used the hashtag “geziparkı,” the Turkish translation of Gezi Park, to circulate images of the protest, including the death of a 15-year-old boy, who was allegedly hit by a canister of tear gas thrown by police.

Twitter was further vilified in the eyes of the Erdoğan government after information of a corruption scandal involving the AKP party was leaked through the social media platform from someone with inside knowledge of the Turkish political elite. It is believed that the government’s crackdown was aimed at targeting the alleged leaks, particularly an anonymous account called Haramzadeler, which according to Bloomberg translates to “Sons of Thieves” or “bastard.” Another account of concern to the government is named Bascalan or “Prime Thief,” a play on the Turkish word for prime minister.

Erdoğan has also indicated that Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and Google-owned (NASDAQ:GOOG) YouTube could be targeted.

The problem is that not only is the ban unlikely to silence social unrest, it has already proven ineffectual at prevent Turkish citizens from tweeting. Tech-savvy social media users found they could still tweet via text, by changing certain Internet settings, or by using a virtual private network. Even elected officials have broken the ban; President Abdullah Gül tweeted Friday his thoughts on the blockage of the social media platform: “One cannot approve of the complete closure of social media platforms,” he wrote. Journalist Andrew Finkel, who has reported from Turkey for more than twenty years, tweeted: “Waking up to no Twitter in Turkey feels like waking up to a coup. The modern equivalent of occupying the radio stations.”

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