Turkey's Social Media Wars

A board shows alternative ways to access Twitter, is placed at an election campaign office of the main opposition Republican's People's Party (CHP) in Istanbul March 25, 2014. Murad Sezer/Reuters

In the weeks before Turkey’s March 30 election, the government shut down some popular social networks, including Twitter, YouTube and Vimeo. The country’s highest court reversed that mandate last week, but the ruling party’s big win at the polls could mean its battle against social media will get even nastier.

Turkey’s economic surge under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has raised expectations about its progress as a liberal democracy, says Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But after the election two weeks ago, “There’s going to be more bad news” on that front, he predicted. “[Erdogan’s] authoritarian, and at the same time [acts like] an underdog. He cuts down the opposition before they can cut him down. He’s a strong man, a tough guy who wouldn’t let anyone go against him.”

Top Ankara officials said the ban was a matter of national security, but Turkey – once considered a trailblazer in forging a democratic Islamist rule – is increasingly seen as one of the world’s worst enemies of free speech. Publishers and television executives critical of the government are regularly threatened, and Turkey leads the world in the number of jailed journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Erdogan is stacking courthouses with loyalists as attempts to investigate government officials on corruption charges are stifled, and Turkish police harshly put down protests.

The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, seems to have an amused twinkle in his eye even when in battle mode. He fiercely defends Erdogan, even as another party stalwart, current president Abdullah Gul, distances himself from the assault on social networks. “Turkey is a democracy and we expect everybody to respect our democratic principles and rules,” Davutoglu told me last week.

Americans shouldn’t worry about Turkey’s democracy, Davutoglu insisted. Banning social networks is “not a political issue, or an issue on human rights and freedom of expression. It’s a legal issue. Twitter and YouTube are international companies. And international companies, when they function in countries, they must respect domestic rules and rule of law of that particular country.”

In one case, he said, a Turkish court ruled in favor of a woman who sued to block Twitter after a pornographic video was posted on a fake account that carried her name. “This is not related to freedom of expression, this is respect to human dignity,” he said. “Dignity of individual citizens. But when [we] approached Twitter that they should block these sites, unfortunately they did not respond positively.”

Government opponents, however, dismiss that explanation. Ever since Istanbul’s anti-Erdogan protests began at Gezi Park last summer, tech-savvy young urbanites have used Twitter as an organizing tool. The micro-blogging site also became a focal point of government criticism, as older media outlets wilted under government pressure. Blocking Tweeter seemed like a way for the government to help the Justice and Development Party, known as AKP, win in the municipal elections. (The shutdown may have been in vain, as many Twitter users managed to find ways to bypass the ban anyway.)

“Twitter is used mostly by young and sophisticated urbanites,” said a government critic who asked to remain anonymous. “You notice that they didn’t shut Facebook down, because that’s what Erdogan’s supporters use to communicate with their families. They just went after Twitter and YouTube.”

Davutoglu told me YouTube was shut down for reasons of national security. “In all the countries, including the United States and Europe, if there is something regarding national security issues, there has always been some principles,” he said. “Everybody must respect these principles.”

The government cut off access to YouTube late last month, shortly after someone posted a secretly-recorded conversation with several top government officials, including Davutoglu, allegedly discussing the country’s strategy on Syria.

Government opponents suspect that the real target here was another secret recording, in which Erdogan is heard telling his son to get rid of large sums of money at the family’s home, fearing that corruption investigations launched late last year would reach the prime minister.

Erdogan insists that recording was fabricated, and accused members of Turkey’s “parallel government” – a name he often uses to describe supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania – of posting it. Real or fake, the recording damaged Erdogan’s reputation.

But now, with his party’s victory in an election widely seen as a referendum on his rule, Erdogan is said to be contemplating a run for the presidency. If he wins that job in August, Erdogan, who has been in power since 2003, would be set to run Turkey for up to 10 more years.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the date of the election and the timing of the social media bans.