January 21, 2015

Turkish court asks Twitter to censor tweets by dozens of users

A criminal court of peace has asked Twitter to remove tweets posted by dozens of users, including journalists and human rights defenders, upon a complaint by a judge, in a clear instance of a continued government crackdown on its opponents.

Dozens of Turkish Twitter users tweeted on Wednesday that they had received e-mails from Twitter asking them to delete certain tweets and saying the company might take action if they did not delete them.

Some users said the tweets in question included the name of 1st İstanbul Penal Court of Peace Judge Bekir Altun, who reportedly allowed wiretapping by police as part of a criminal investigation before dozens of police officials were detained in July on charges of illegal wiretapping. Altun reportedly refused to oversee their trial, saying he is too busy.

Altun also later ruled for the arrest of Hidayet Karaca, the general manager of Samanyolu Broadcasting Group (STV) and three police officers. The arrests came as part of a Dec. 14 operation against media outlets affiliated with the Hizmet movement, a faith-based social movement inspired by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, orchestrated by the Turkish government.

Journalist Arzu Yıldız published via her Twitter account a list of the accounts that were subject to the decision of the criminal court of peace. The list also includes prominent Turkish female journalist Nazlı Ilıcak, who is well known for her staunch support of the Hizmet movement, which has been targeted by the Turkish government since 2013. Along with the Twitter accounts of local journalists who are critical of the government, tweets from the Twitter accounts of certain news websites are also on the list to be erased.

The list also includes the Twitter account belonging to former İstanbul Police Chief Ali Fuat Yılmazer, who is currently behind bars over the wiretapping charges.

A total of 220 Twitter users were reportedly asked to delete their tweets.

The Twitter users, who started to protest against the blocking of their tweets on Wednesday, have labeled the situation a new act of censorship initiated by the government, which is attempting to silence dissident voices across the country.

Noting that she was warned that her account might be shut down Yıldız said: "Would anything else be expected from the new Turkey? With this mentality we can be neither a new Turkey nor a medieval age country." She drew attention to the fact that the accounts of the so-called “AK trolls” allegedly controlled by the AK Party are not listed. The AK trolls are social media accounts allegedly controlled by the government and run by paid supporters. "There is no ban on the [Ak trolls'] accounts."

Another journalist, Barış Yarkadaş, who is the owner of the Internet news site gercekgundem.com, whose Twitter account is also on the ban list, has claimed that the ban on specific tweets were ordered by Judge Altun himself and that they will oppose this decision. Yarkadaş said a tweet in question that was posted on the Twitter account of the website contained news published on his website on June 27, 2014.

"We will fight against the decision of the criminal court of peace. Now our lawyers Tura and Ertuğrul Aydoğan are heading to the court. They will write a petition so that the decision is not put into force. There is not any element of slander, insult or any other crime. It is just a news story prepared based on an interview with the judge Bekir Altun," Yarkadaş said.

In another instance showing that there is a massive government crackdown against the media, journalist Sedef Kabaş, who was detained last December for posting tweets that were critical of the government's handling of a major corruption investigation, is now facing a prison sentence of up to five years on charges of targeting individuals involved in the fight against terrorism.

Kabaş had criticized prosecutors for dropping a corruption and bribery investigation that implicated various high-ranking state officials in a tweet she posted. In the indictment prepared by prosecutor Vedat Yigit against Kabaş, İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor Hadi Salihoğlu is listed as the plaintiff.

Reactions grow against bill to block Twitter

As a result of the judge's decision to erase the tweets, a bill introduced by several AK Party deputies asking that extreme rights be granted to the prime minister and ministers also drew ire.

Politicians and civil society groups have reacted harshly to the bill, which envisages blocking access to Twitter and removing those user accounts which are critical of the government at the behest of the prime minister and/or government ministers without a court order.

The Turkish Informatics Foundation (TBV) issued a statement stressing that if the proposed bill is enacted the gap between democratic countries and Turkey will be impossible to bridge, and the foreign investment rate will be negatively affected, as well as calling on Parliament not to pass the proposed law.

The foundation also warned that such an amendment risks damaging all of Turkey's democratic gains as well as legal ones, adding: "The planned change may damage freedoms and the improvement that Turkey has made in terms of regulating Internet content to date. The law may result in a decreased investment rate due to a negative perception about Turkey, since it will be moving away from international law and norms. It also poses threats to Turkey being a global economic actor based on information.”

According to the proposed bill, when national security and the public order are in jeopardy, the prime minister or ministers will able to order the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) to remove or block the accounts who pose a supposed threat.

Turkish media organizations slam attack on media freedom

Non-profit organizations established to secure press freedom in Turkey have harshly criticized the recent censorship imposed on some Twitter users who have posted tweets deemed to be critical of the Turkish government and the government's continuing crackdown on media freedom.

Turkish Journalists Union (TGS) President Uğur Güç has deemed the decision of the criminal court of peace to erase the allegedly critical tweets as an act of restricting freedom of expression in the country. “It definitely indicates that freedom of expression and freedom of thought are under attack [in Turkey],” Güç said, adding that with the new proposed law there will be an automatic ban on all online news websites which oppose the government. Turkish Journalists Federation (TGF) Chairman Atilla Sertel has called the decision “censorship,” while Contemporary Journalists Association (ÇGD) Chairman Ahmet Abakay said the government's bans on freedom of expression seems like it will never end. “Twitter is an important part of media freedom as it is a place where people are expressing their thoughts. You cannot ban it,” Abakay said, adding that with the new law “Turkey's dignity is nullified in the international community as well.”

“Journalists have already been denied their freedoms. Media bosses are called by the government and censored. The limits of the media representatives are narrowed down. They have been rid of their pens and microphones. Journalists were obliged to express themselves on social media. And now they are taking such a decision to again censor the journalists,” Sertel said, calling for journalists to chase their rights at the court as he thinks the act of banning specific tweets should not be acceptable.

Published on Today's Zaman, 21 January 2015, Wednesday