Breaking Bad: Turkey Bans Twitter

Turkey, for years one of the few functioning democracies in the Middle East, is breaking bad. This week, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoan made good on his recent promise to ban Twitter, which he accused of circulating “lies” and “slander” — actually damaging recordings of phone conversations showing his involvement in official corruption — during recent protests against his government.
 
In a speech Thursday, Erdoan vowed to “root out” Twitter, telling a cheering crowd in the provincial city of Bursa: “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's state.” A few hours later, Twitter users found the site blocked; instead, they were redirected to a page with a brief statement from the Turkish telecommunications regulator, citing four court orders blocking the site as a “protection measure.”
 
According to the government, the ban was prompted by complaints from ordinary citizens that Twitter users were violating their privacy by posting personal information online: “Because there was no other choice, access to Twitter was blocked in line with court decisions to avoid the possible future victimization of citizens.” In view of the facts stated above, however, it seems a great deal more likely that the ban was actually prompted by the complaints of one citizen in particular: Recep Tayyip Erdoan.
 
What comes next is anyone’s guess.

Is this the first in a series of repressive measures? Previously, Erdoan also criticized Facebook, YouTube and mainstream media sites for unflattering reports on protests. Since then, many Turkish TV news outlets and newspapers have adopted self-censorship.
 
While the world remains focused on the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine, the Turkish government’s decisive break with democratic norms may prove an even bigger disaster. In addition to removing an important role model for democracy in the Mideast, the Turkish government’s authoritarian turn will provide ammunition for critics. They say Islamist political movements, like Erdoan’s Justice and Development Party, can’t be trusted to uphold democratic values. It could also unbalance already wobbly democracies in neighboring countries like Greece.
 
There is one glimmer of hope in all this: The Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, is taking a stand against the social media crackdown. Although the presidency is a mostly ceremonial position, it carries moral authority and serves as a “bully pulpit” that is hard to silence. On Friday, Gül tweeted (apparently via text message) that “a total shutdown of social media platforms cannot be approved.”

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