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What's behind Turkey's ban on social media? (+video)

In the wake of a car bomb attack in Ankara that killed 37 and wounded at least 125, a Turkish court banned access to social media after images of bombing victims were shared online. 

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    Family members mourn as they wait outside the Medical Forensic Center a day after a deadly explosion in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, March 14, 2016. A Turkish court banned access to social media sites after images of victims of the bombing were circulated online. Critics say these bans are part of a large effort by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to maintain his political influence amid protests against the ruling AKP party.
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A Turkish court has blocked access to social media in the wake of a car bombing Sunday in the capital city of Ankara that killed 37 and wounded at least 125.

The Gölbaşi Penal Court of Peace, which is located in the capital, said it had decided to block access to the sites, including Twitter and Facebook, after images circulated online showing victims of the bombings on Sunday night, Hürriyet Daily News reports.

Similar crackdowns have occurred after images spread online of a Turkish prosecutor being held at gunpoint after being taken hostage last April. In 2014, the country also temporarily banned access to Twitter after leaked audio tapes emerged that appeared to show corruption in the inner-circle of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

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In the wake of Sunday’s bombing, which the government said was committed by Kurdish militants, Turkey’s air force carried out airstrikes on Kurdish rebel groups in northern Iraq on Monday.

“We condemn today’s bombing in #Ankara. We share this great pain with all our people,” the left-wing People’s Democratic Party, which has attempted to bridge divides between Turks and the country’s Kurdish minority, said in a statement on Twitter.

Mr. Erdoğan, the country's president, whose AKP party has been in power since 2002, recently vowed to “bring terrorism to its knees,” with Sunday’s bombing coming less than a month after a car bomb killed 29 people in Ankara.

A Kurdish militant group that is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) claimed responsibility for that attack. The government has said the latest bombings were committed by two people, including a woman who was a member of the PKK, though the PKK has not claimed responsibility.

Online, users reacted with alarm to the government’s crackdown on social media, noting that it was still possible to access the sites using a virtual private network, a common method that was also used by people in Pakistan to access social media sites blocked by the government.

“Having to use a VPN again to access twitter and other social media. Sad, very sad. Information doesn’t kill, never has,” wrote one user located in Istanbul on Sunday.

Erdoğan, who recently took control of the prominent daily newspaper Zaman after firing its editor-in-chief, has long criticized social media sites, calling them “the worst menace to society” in the wake of protests in Gezi Park in Istanbul in the summer of 2013.

But supporters of the AKP party also briefly launched social media campaigns of their own targeting the protests, the BBC reported.

In 2014, the Turkish parliament adopted a controversial law allowing the country’s telecommunications authority to block any website within four hours without first obtaining a court ruling. It also required Internet providers to store all data on web users for two years and make it available to the government upon request.

AKP supporters argued the repeated social media bans were intended to send a message to the social media sites that they needed to comply with local laws.

“This ban is targeting Twitter and giving a message: ‘If you do not comply with my ruling and ignore it then I will restrict your access to the users in Turkey,” Taha Un, an AKP supporter who was been active on the social media told the BBC last year.

But critics say the bans are largely political, an effort to woo conservative voters by increasingly cracking down on users for charges such as “insulting” the president, including on Twitter.

“For them it’s all just one major battle, it’s all connected,” Mustafa Akyol, an author and columnist for Hürriyet Daily News, told the Monitor last week. “For Erdoğan’s world view, there’s the righteous and glorious Erdoğan and his loyal supporters and the rest is enemy territory, within the country or outside.”

In Pakistan, the government reinstated access to YouTube in January after reaching an agreement with Google, which owns the site, to launch a local version that complies with the country’s laws.

That’s an approach taken by a range of social media companies, though advocates for government transparency say that how the sites review potentially-offensive content to see whether it complies with local laws is often unclear.

According to the site’s annual transparency report, Twitter challenged many of the Turkish government’s requests to remove particular content in 2014 in court – several months after the country banned the service in the wake of the leaked audio implicating Erdoğan – though very few of those court challenges were successful.

In the wake of Sunday’s bombing, round-the-clock curfews were declared in three towns in Turkey’s southeast in anticipation of “operations,” conducted against Kurdish militants in the area, leading many locals to flee, Reuters reports.

In a critique of the government’s response, protestors at a soccer match at Şükrü Saracoğlu stadium in Istanbul held signs that read simply “government resign,” on Sunday, in a move captured on video.

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