Erdogan’s about-face on freedom of expression, all in the name of democracy

Turkey’s president embraced social media in his efforts to put down an attempted coup last week. But the easing of internet restrictions didn’t last long — blink and you may have missed it.  

By: /
July 22, 2016
A Turkish national flag waves as pro-government demonstrators march over the Bosphorus Bridge, from the Asian to the European side of Istanbul, Turkey, July 21, 2016.

In the days since last week’s attempted coup in Turkey, fears that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would use the event as a chance to lash out against his enemies have proven to be justified. Tens of thousands of Turks, from soldiers to teachers, have been arrested, jailed, sacked or suspended, ostensibly because of their suspected ties to the coup plotters. A three-month state of emergency declared Wednesday will allow Erdogan’s government to rule largely by decree. And on Thursday, the deputy prime minister announced that Turkey would not observe the European Convention on Human Rights while the state of emergency is in place.

These moves have rightly sparked international condemnation. But the international community should also pay close attention to Turkey’s clampdowns in cyberspace, which can have an equally devastating effect on democracy.

At the height of last Friday’s chaos, with a faction of the army claiming power and the president’s whereabouts unknown, many observers were astonished to see Erdogan reaching out to the public through social media. It was only a few years ago that he was calling social media “the worst menace to society” and threatening to “eradicate” Twitter. But there he was, speaking to the nation via FaceTime, with his Twitter accounts calling on Turks to take to the streets to defend their democratically elected government.

Meanwhile, suspected Internet “throttling” that had been slowing social media access to a crawl earlier that night seemed to be reversed after a couple of hours, and the state-aligned mobile phone company had expanded its users’ data limits so they could send tweets and photos more freely.

If this was a government strategy to beat back the coup, it worked. Just as it had in the past, most notably during the Gezi Park movement of 2013, social media allowed Turks to coordinate protests and build support for their cause. Social media has become especially important in light of Turkey’s widespread clampdowns on journalism, offering a forum for alternative views and critical information that traditional news media used to provide.

It might not be surprising, then, that whenever events threaten the regime’s stability — such as the Gezi Park protests, a corruption scandal that implicated officials close to Erdogan, or the October 2015 Ankara bombing — the regime typically responds by throttling access to social media platforms or blocking them entirely. It also uses Twitter’s Country Withheld Policy to block individual tweets within Turkey: about 90 percent of the tweets withheld worldwide last year came from Turkey.

In the aftermath of the coup, analysts pointed out the irony of Erdogan’s despised social media coming to his rescue. “A free press and open Internet have proved essential to everyone — even those at the height of power,” wrote Turkish writer and academic Zeynep Tufekci.

But any hopes that Erdogan was changing his mind about the value of a free Internet are not likely to be fulfilled. At least 12 Turkish news websites have been blocked this week, as has WikiLeaks, which published a trove of emails from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Given past government behaviour, we can also expect that hundreds of individual tweets and other social media posts are also being blocked in the country.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s media freedom representative, Dunja Mijatovic, decried these latest online clampdowns — which have been accompanied by another round of media detentions and restrictions — as a threat to freedom of expression. Other global leaders should follow suit. As they press Turkey on its arrests and sanctions, they shouldn’t lose sight of the crucial role of social media and the Internet in allowing Turkish citizens to stay informed and exchange their views at this critical time in their history.

There is also a role for Twitter and other Internet companies to play. If they are acquiescing to Turkish government requests to block sensitive content in Turkey, they owe it to Turkish citizens and their global community of users to disclose that information as soon as possible. While Twitter, Google and other Internet intermediaries release periodic “transparency reports” that detail their responses to government takedown requests, situations like this call for swifter disclosures. The people who are affected by these services should be able to understand how companies are making the decisions to limit their access to information or their freedom of expression, so that they can hold these companies accountable.

A coup that steals power from an elected government defies the principles of democracy, but so do limits to expression that prevent citizens from voicing their views. Democracy isn’t just a vote for who you want to form the government, but an ongoing expression of how you want to be governed. By limiting that expression in the public space that is the Internet, the Turkish government may be just as undemocratic as the rogue soldiers who tried to overthrow it.