In March 2014, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made a press statement in which he threatened to “root out” all the social media networks where information can be distributed to a wide audience without restriction. The statement was made in the context of an unprecedented situation: wiretapped conversations between Erdoğan and his inner-circle were leaked on the World Wide Web via social networks, and their content was damaging the government’s reputation just before the local elections. And since the Turkish Prime Minister could not stand such a threat that is directed to the authority of his government, on March 20th 2014, the micro-blogging website Twitter has been shut down by the monopolistic and government-driven Turkish telecom agency, BTK. The official statement behind this action is backed up by four court orders that present the blocking as a “protection measure”. The BTK representatives told the press that it was the Turkish citizens who complained about Twitter breaching privacy. It was reported that the telecom agency has contacted the administrators of the micro-blogging platform and asked them to remove some content, and decided to block the website as soon as it became obvious that the reply would not come with a favorable action.

 

Even though the Turkish President, Abdullah Gul, has tried to calm down the citizens and the outraged international community by making statements against the shutdown of social networks, Erdoğan went on and made a series of controversial claims:

“We will wipe out all of these” – While addressing to thousands of supporters at a rally in the north-west province of Bursa.”

“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.”

“We are determined on the issue, regardless of what the world may say. […] We won’t allow the people to be devoured by YouTube, Facebook or others. Whatever steps need to be taken we will take them without wavering.”

“That included. Because these people or institutions are [using social media] for all kinds of immorality, all kinds of espionage and spying.”

“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.”

Erdogan/ Twitter/ by Sözcü

According to various sources, the tapes contain (among others) clear instructions the Prime Minister was giving to his son in order to move millions in cash out of the house, a conversation with the head of a Turkish news channel in which the latter was being instructed to cut short an interview with a political opponent, and even “backstage plotting” with a justice minister. Reportedly, most of the recordings have surfaced right after Erdoğan’s government has fired the prosecutors and police members who were involved in investigating homes of politicians in order to reveal suspected unlawful material gains.

 

But the abusive actions did not stop here: only a week after blocking Twitter, the Turkish government has also taken down the video sharing website YouTube. This time it wasn’t just about the privacy of a high-ranked official, but a case that was thought to menace the national security: a conversation between Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, undersecretary of the foreign ministry Feridun Sinirlioglu and deputy chief of the general staff, Yasar Gürel, that suggested a plotting to undergo military action in Syria.

Erdogan Youtube

However, despite any claims of the government and regardless their position, from the perspective of the Turkish citizens, there are two fundamental human rights that are infringed: the right to freedom of opinion and expression (as stipulated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also in the Preamble), and the right to participate in cultural life of the community, enjoy the arts and scientific discoveries (as stipulated in Article 27 of the UDHR, by broadening the meaning of the word “community”). If we are to regard the intervention of the government in the internet stratum as an infringement of the users’ privacy, then Article 12 should also be cited, with its mentioning of subjection to arbitrary interference to family, home, correspondence, and attacks upon honor and reputation.

human-rights-decl-cover

The next question that arises is: “Since when are the fundamental human rights also applicable on the internet?”. The answer can be found United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution L13 from 2012, which:

“1. Affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; [and]

2. Recognizes the global and open nature of the Internet as a driving force in accelerating progress towards development in its various forms; (20/L13 – The Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet, supra.)”

In other words, the UN Human Rights Council admits that there is a mirroring principle between what goes on online and what occurs in the real world. Moreover, in a 2013 report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur, Frank De La Rue, it is clearly stipulated that there is an inter-linkage between privacy and freedom of expression.  In the same report, governments are advised to better protect privacy and freedom rights on the internet, and censorship is presented as a serious threat that towards freedom of thought and freedom of expression.

 

Therefore, it can be said that the virtual avatar has become a reflection of our day-to-day persona, and the days when the digital world was merely a utopian state-of-nature fantasy are far behind. The Turkish citizens have the right, according to the international agreements, to access and share content on the internet. And when two of the biggest and most visited websites are blocked, then it is completely legitimate on their behalf to display outrage, discontent, anger and an overall disapproving behavior. However, a big part of the debate can be the notion of cultural relativism: from an obsolete perspective that predates the establishment of an international community and of a network that transcends physical boundaries, one might say that Turkey (despite being a state that has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is a member of the United Nations) should not align to the standards of the Western states, as the politicians make decisions only according to the principle of national sovereignty. A cultural relativist would point out to the undemocratic nature of the Turkish polities throughout history, the indigenous culture that doesn’t encourage speaking one’s mind freely against the government, and other customs regarding practices that are “faithful to the ruler”. However, in a context in which treaties were signed, agreements were made, and there is a permanent interconnectedness between the states that is recognized to be protected by the international community, then all the attitudes of protest of the Turkish citizens are legitimate. Moreover, it is the duty of the international community to ensure that the Turkish citizens can take part to the flow of information by spreading and receiving online data, and such actions are the marks of an illegitimate, abusive, and undemocratic government. The story told by the likes of Erdoğan goes even further: the leaks are the signs of a spying opposition that has planted microphones in a way that is reminiscent to the Watergate Scandal. They are also meant to destabilize the current government and bring a threat to the status-quo social, political and cultural establishment of the Turkish state. Erdoğan’s discourse is meant to spark the assumed intrinsic nationalistic feelings of the Turkish people, so that the situation is regarded from a very “us and them” point of view: as if Turkey is a cultural stronghold that resists the influences of the evil West. Whilst the reaction of the international community remains to be seen, one thing is clear: Erdoğan has promised that once he wins the elections, he will block all the social media websites – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and every other “threat” for his political establishment. And it seems that his plot is not to undergo any twists, as his party (AK) has already won the local elections – which leads to a weaker hope for a strong and “Western-minded” opposition.

 


[10] http://www.un.int/turkey/, Consulted on March 30th 2014

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