The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Erdogan’s crackdown on social media is nearing its end game

A man checks his Twitter account at a cafe in Istanbul on July 29. (Sedat Suna/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

In 2018, I and a group of other Turkish exile journalists in Berlin started an Internet-based radio station that we called “We Are Free.” As the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has intensified its suppression of the press, our station continued to provide Turkish citizens with independent information.

We share podcasts from our website on social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Spotify. Millions of Turks rely on such platforms for uncensored news.

Last week, the government issued a new order banning our website, thus preventing listeners from accessing it. The authorities accused us of “threatening national security.” They failed to cite any examples of broadcasts that constituted such a threat. This is the fifth ban in 16 months; the previous time it happened, 38 international organizations condemned the move as “harassment.”

In the past we’ve managed to dodge such orders with the help of social media platforms that refused to drop our content despite pressure from the government. But now they are also facing the threat of closure as the government launches a new crackdown on social media, which remains one of our country’s last bastions of free expression.

The government crackdown on our radio station came just days after the Turkish parliament passed a set of new social media regulations. Lawmakers took just 24 hours to pass the bill. The new legislation forces platforms to store user data in Turkey and maintain representative offices in the country. In other words, when the authorities find a tweet problematic, they will force the Turkish office of Twitter to remove it. If the company refuses, the government will hit it with heavy fines. The same will be true for Google’s YouTube videos.

In recent years, journalism in Turkey has come to resemble a game of whack-a-mole. As Erdogan tries to crush them with his hammer, journalists find new ways of popping back up. The president is clearly desperate to finish off independent voices for good.

The Turkish government claims to be taking as its model the laws Germany has designed to combat far-right propaganda and hate crimes, which have been increasing over the past few years. Government representatives have argued that many social media companies maintain representative offices in Germany, so Turkey should be able to demand the same. And if the heads of the United States’ big social media companies have to answer for their actions before Congress, why can’t the Turkish parliament be allowed to hold them accountable similarly?

It’s important to keep three points in mind. First, Turkey is not a democratic country. The Turkish authorities have imprisoned more than 100 journalists for articles or tweets — something that can hardly be said of Germany or the United States.

According to a report from Media Freedom Rapid Response, the number of blocked websites in Turkey has reached 409,000. Wikipedia, which is one of these sites, was blocked for two and a half years. Among the 181,000 account closure requests that Twitter has received in the past seven years, 84,000 were from Turkey. Turkey has an impressive lead over Russia, which trails in second place.

Second, Erdogan’s government has given the bureaucracy wide latitude to censor content. According to the Freedom of Expression Association’s report, 17 different institutions have the power to block access to websites. Bureaucrats from the Capital Markets Board and the Ministry of Religious Affairs have the authority to censor the content for completely arbitrary reasons.

Third, when we say “problematic content,” we are not referring to pornography or instructional videos on constructing a bomb. One recent ban touched upon a scandal involving Erdogan’s son-in-law, Finance Minister Berat Albayrak. The article in question was accurate, but it was problematic for the government, so it was banned.

The Turkish government wants Twitter to erase this content. But the company generally rejects such requests. It is also uncomfortable with the government troll army’s activities on Twitter.

In June, Twitter shut down 7,340 pro-Erdogan troll accounts on the basis that they were being centrally managed. You can hardly blame the company for trying to get rid of inauthentic accounts. Yet the decision enraged Erdogan. One of his spokespeople accused Twitter of “trying to protect terrorists and redesign Turkish politics.”

In retaliation, Erdogan proceeded to use a few insulting tweets aimed at his newborn grandchild as an excuse to pass a censorship law.

We have arrived at a moment of truth for Google and Twitter. They are now being forced to choose between oppressive Turkish laws and freedom of speech. If they opt for compromise, they can follow the new law by dispatching representatives to Ankara, which will give Erdogan crucial leverage over them in future disputes. If the companies decide in favor of freedom of speech, refusing to censor content at the government’s behest, the government will have the power, under the new law, to almost entirely block the Internet traffic of these platforms. In that case, we will have to find a new way out of our game of whack-a-mole.

Read more:

Can Dundar: In Turkey, political Islam is getting in the way of rational health policy

Can Dundar: Erdogan uses Turkey’s war to stoke nationalism and crack down on critics