Erdoğan’s government blocks access to Twitter ahead of local vote

Erdoğan’s government blocks access to Twitter ahead of local vote

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to ban Twitter. (Illustration: Today's Zaman, Kadir Özmen)

March 20, 2014, Thursday/ 17:35:00

Twitter users in Turkey reported widespread outages on Friday, hours after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to "root out" the social media network where wiretapped recordings have been leaked, damaging the government's reputation ahead key local elections this month.

Some users trying to open the Twitter.com website were taken to a statement apparently from Turkey's telecommunications regulator (TIB). The statement cited four court orders as the basis for blocking the site, where some users in recent weeks have posted voice recordings and documents purportedly showing evidence of corruption among Erdoğan's inner circle.

"Twitter, mwitter!," Erdoğan told thousands of supporters at a rally ahead of March 30 local elections late on Thursday, in a phrase translating roughly as "Twitter, schmitter!".

"We will wipe out all of these," said Erdoğan, who has said the corruption scandal is part of a smear campaign by his political enemies.

"The international community can say this, can say that. I don't care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is," he said in a characteristically unyielding tone.

San Francisco-based Twitter said Thursday afternoon local time that it was looking into the matter and had not issued a formal statement. But the company did publish a tweet addressed to Turkish users instructing them on how to continue tweeting via SMS text message.

European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes criticized the ban on her Twitter account as "groundless, pointless, cowardly."

"Turkish people and the (international) community will see this as censorship. It is," she said.

Twitter, which was originally invented as a text message-based network before it evolved into a Web-based multimedia platform, allows users to access stripped down versions of its service.

Turkish Internet users were quick to come up with their own ways to circumvent the block. The hashtag #TwitterisblockedinTurkey quickly moved among the top trending globally.

The disruption sparked a virtual uproar with many comparing Turkey to Iran and North Korea, where social media platforms are tightly controlled.

There were also calls to take to the street to protest, although some users equally called for calm.

Nazlı Ilıcak, a columnist who used to work for the pro-government Sabah newspaper described the move as "a civil coup" in an interview on broadcaster CNN Turk.

Latest clash

Following his speech, Erdoğan's office said in a statement that Erdoğan was referring to what it called Twitter's failure to implement Turkish court orders seeking the removal of some links and that they may be left with no option but to ban the platform.

"If Twitter officials insist on not implementing court orders and rules of law ... there will be no other option but to prevent access to Twitter to help satisfy our citizens' grievances," the statement said.

Thursday's apparent blocking was only the latest clash between Turkey's ruling party and social media companies including Google, Facebook and Twitter.

After a series of popular protests partly fueled by Twitter last summer, Erdoğan slammed the service as "a scourge." Shortly thereafter a government minister asked Twitter to establish an office in the country so that it could better communicate requests to take down content or hold the company accountable to Turkish law. Twitter did not respond to the request.

Erdoğan said two weeks ago that Turkey could also ban Facebook and YouTube, which he says have been abused by his enemies after a stream of audio recordings purportedly revealing corruption in his inner circle emerged online.

The ban has drawn public outrage as well as international condemnation. The US expressed deep concern about any move to introduce a ban on social media, highlighting the significance of freedoms.

"As we have previously stated, we remain very concerned by any suggestion that social media sites could be shut down. Democracies are strengthened by the diversity of public voices," said US State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki at a daily press briefing on Thursday.

"An independent and unfettered media is an essential element of democratic, open societies, and crucial to ensuring official transparency and accountability."

Earlier story:

Erdoğan threatens to ban social media as local votes looms

Anger, threats and conspiracy theories have marked the run-up to the March 30 local elections, with Erdoğan battling a corruption scandal he says is orchestrated by his enemies, much of it waged via leaks on Twitter and YouTube.

"Twitter, mwitter!," Erdoğan told thousands of supporters at a rally in the northwestern province of Bursa, in a phrase translating roughly as "Twitter, schmitter!".

"We will wipe out all of these," he said.

"The international community can say this, can say that. I don't care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is," he said in a characteristically unyielding tone.

Erdoğan said two weeks ago that Turkey could ban Facebook and YouTube, which he says have been abused by his enemies after a stream of audio recordings purportedly revealing corruption in his inner circle emerged online.

President Abdullah Gül, a co-founder of Erdoğan's ruling AK Party who is seen as a more conciliatory figure, later ruled out any such move.

The corruption scandal has further polarized Turkish society and raised the stakes in local elections now widely seen as a referendum on Erdoğan's rule. Both sides have warned about ballot abuse, with the main opposition saying it alone plans to deploy half a million poll observers.

The AK Party is expected to follow suit.

Erdoğan was shaken last June by anti-government protests, which have been rekindled in recent weeks partly by the graft scandal. But polls suggest his party is on course to maintain its dominance of the electoral map in the municipal vote, albeit with tight races in the major cities of Istanbul and Ankara.

"When we take into account the atmosphere in Turkey right now, this election is more meaningful than ever," said Emrehan Halıcı, deputy chairman of the main CHP opposition party.

He said the CHP would have people monitoring voting at all 200,000 ballot boxes across the country and bolster an online system it launched at general elections in 2011 to allow voters to cross-check the results.

"Turkish citizens have doubts over these elections, and they're right to," Halıcı told Reuters.

"Atmosphere of mistrust"

The local elections mark the start of a critical 15-month voting cycle for Turkey, with presidential and parliamentary polls also due, and the campaigns on both sides have been peppered with allegations of potential fraud.

The AK Party mayoral candidate in Ankara this week warned about the risk of "vanishing ink". Erdoğan himself has told his supporters not to be duped by opponents using social media to try to trick them into inadvertently spoiling their ballots.

Despite a turbulent political past, Turkey's previous elections have been largely seen as free and fair, with overall control of the process resting in the hands of top judges on the country's Supreme Electoral Board.

But a controversial law pushed through by the AK Party last month has seen the judiciary come under greater government control, raising alarm in among other places, the European Union, which Turkey has been seeking to join for decades.

Last week 18 European MPs sent a letter to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton urging her to request an invitation from Turkey for election observers.

"(There's) an atmosphere of mistrust, conspiracy, deep polarisation and sometimes aggression," Dutch liberal MP Marietje Schaake, who authored the letter, told Reuters.

With less than two weeks until polling day, it would be impossible to deploy a full observer team, Schaake said. But she argued that credible monitoring was vital to avoid controversy over the results sparking any further tensions.

The EU does not normally monitor local polls, and Ankara has received no request for an invitation, a Turkish official told Reuters, although Erdoğan has said international teams are welcome to monitor the vote if they wish to.

Erdoğan was on the campaign trail on Thursday, having on Wednesday angrily threatened to "ban a ban" imposed on his party's main campaign video after electoral authorities blocked it for misusing national symbols.

The video shows a shadowy figure cutting the cords on a huge Turkish flag, before loyal citizens rush to form a human flagpole to keep it flying.   

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