Censorship: Turkish PM, President tangle over Bruited ban on Facebook, Youtube

(By Juan Cole)

President Abdullah Gul has rejected a suggestion by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan that Turkey might ban Facebook and Twitter. Nearly half of Turkey’s 77 million people use Facebook at least once a month and the country ranks 15th in the world for Facebook use. Turkey had banned Youtube 2008-2010.

The good news is that Gul stepped in to nix the authoritarian step proposed by Erdogan, which recalls the policies of regional dictators such as Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad (even they had to back away from such bans because of a public backlash).

The bad news is that Gul is outgoing as president and may be replaced by… Tayyip Erdogan.

More bad news: One reason Gul gave for rejecting a global ban is that Turkey now has among the world’s most repressive internet laws and the government can ban websites one by one. So what Gul is saying is not that free speech will be maintained on social media but rather you don’t need to ban the Facebook domain as a whole because the government can ban individual sites within it. That’s very bad.

Why does Erdogan want to get rid of social media? Apparently because he has cowed and intimidated the print press in meatspace and on line into never offering any significant criticism of him or his policies. More evidence of his browbeating of editors and getting reporters fired surfaced in the form of audio tapes of his telephone conversations with newspaper editors this week. Their authenticity cannot be confirmed at this time.

Erdogan maintains that the audio files are pastiches made up of words recorded in various conversations and then patched together to make him look bad. That allegation can surely be easily tested forensically and I hope Turkish activists will prove or disprove it.

The prime minister has been dogged by audio leaks showing him as engaged in corrupt and dictatorial practices, which he maintains have been put out by the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim revivalist movement that had earlier been Erdogan’s coalition partner but which has split with him. Erdogan charges that Gulen members act as a political cult, secretively inserting themselves into the police, judiciary and other influential offices and then using their clout to undermine him. (In some ways his charges against the Gulen members resemble Saudi Arabia’s recent campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, which is likewise accused of deploying Stalinist tactics of covert penetration and sabotage).

Whatever the truth about the Gulen movement, that Erdogan has suppressed freedom of the press in Turkey seems obvious. During the Gezi Park demonstrations last summer, Turkish news channels avoided covering the rallies. CNN Turk ran a documentary about penguins at the height of the police crackdown. The print press often runs the same pro-government headline in 7-10 newspapers, showing that these newspapers have become little more than propaganda outlets for Erdogan’s center-right Justice and Development Party (AKP), which tilts toward Muslim issues though it has not, at least until recently, been a fundamentalist party.

It further seems obvious that Erdogan is frustrated that he can’t control the internet the way he controls the press, which is what is impelling him to threaten to close down Facebook and Youtube altogether. Turkey retains the conception of political libel (unlike the US and most European states), such that if you say something damaging about a politician you can be sued and jailed. Since political reality is ambiguous, political libel is an extremely pernicious conception and gives politicians a tool to avoid being criticized (though you could argue that judges in the US have gone too far in the direction of allowing outright and obvious lies to be spread around about political figures). Erdogan is maintaining that he is being libeled not just by individuals but by social media in their entirety.

Although Erdogan had a good run as a steward of the Turkish economy in the past decade, and has real accomplishments to his credit in expanding trade and industry, he has in my view developed severe personality problems– narcissism, vindictiveness, grandiosity– that are harming Turkey and undermining its earlier move toward more democracy. Free communication is key to progress in science, technology, and cybernetics (what software engineers can make real progress in a society without an internet?), and Erdogan’s reinvention of himself as a latter day Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II (famed for his censorship and paranoia over a century ago) has become a potential obstacle to further Turkish advancement.

If it is true, as he alleges, that the Gulen movement is acting like a covert political cult, that is also disturbing. But maybe what Turkey needs is the equivalent of RICO (corrupt practices and conspiracies) prosecutions where nefarious activity is proven in court and prosecuted, as with organized crime in the US– not a wholesale ban on Facebook!

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Related video:

Euronews: Turkey’s president rules out ban on Facebook and YouTube

4 Responses

  1. In the end, Gul will do what he’s told to do by Erdogan. When hasn’t he? Oh, he talks pretty some days, but it leads nowhere.

    & whatever the truth about the Gulen movement (I’ve no illusions of their virtue), he was glad to have them as long as they were clearing the field of opponents. But apparently there’s a messiah quota, so and one of them has to go.

    & Juan, be serious: you can be jailed for libel if you say anything against AKP or anything taken as “anti-Muslim,” but none of it applies if you’re AKP. That’s been proven repeatedly over the years.

    What’s changed about Tayyip is your opinion of him. Had you been talking to other Turks, you’d have been hearing this over the years.

    And if you really think that Erdogan has been an economic steward, you’re kidding yourself. Credit first to the CHP’s Kemal Dervis, who hatched the recovery plan. Then to Ali Babacan, who ran a good ship while he had the freedom to chart course.

    And given your interest in green policies, you should be thrilled to learn that on Friday a decision was taken to leave it up to provincial governors — who are political appointees — to decide if environmental impact studies are necessary before green-lighting projects. Spend some time reading up on environmental depredation in Turkey and the privatization of public land, particularly green spaces, then talk about that wonderful stewardship if you still dare.

  2. A Turkish RICO woukd be a terrible idea, considering how the law has been abused in the US.

    • Not even needed. Ergenekon/Balyoz was the Mother of All RICO cases and carried far too far without need for a statute.

      There’s no way for Erdogan to prove this conspiracy without staining himself.

      More importantly, Erdogan has always run as the underdog beset by conspiring forces. It’s a popular narrative in Turkey, and he was able to get a lot of otherwise intelligent people in the west to sign on.

      In this case, you might say that if Gulen didn’t exist Tayyip would have had to invent him. Or Keyser Söze.

  3. Mr. Cole,

    What is the evidence that the Gulen Movement can be described as a cult? Also; what is they evidence that the Gulen Movement has moved covertly with structures of power, and thereby acted malevolently?

    Thank you!

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