This week, a Turkish court ruled to block Twitter, Facebook,YouTube and other sites—once again attempting to block Turkish users from access to an uncensored media.
The ruling was prompted by the appearance of photographs showing prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz being held hostage by militants in his office. Last week, two alleged members of the banned far-left radical group, the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), held Kiraz for several hours before the captors were killed. Kiraz died in a hospital later that day, succumbing to injuries he sustained during the rescue mission. The offending photographs show an abductor pointing a gun to Kiraz’s head.
Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for President Tayyip Erdogan, said outlets that published or hosted the photos were acting "as if they were spreading terrorist propaganda,” according to Reuters. Kalin added in a press conference that "What happened in the aftermath is as grim as the incident itself… The demand from the prosecutor's office is that this image not be used anywhere in electronic platforms.”
The Guardian explains that the social media outlets were offered an ultimatum—remove the images within a set timeframe or remain inaccessible under a country-wide ban—after the court demanded a block of 166 websites that had published the photographs. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube complied with government’s demand to remove the photos and resumed operation within hours, but not before #TwitterisblockedinTurkey became a globally trending topic.
For Turkey’s online news outlets, the ban on social media poses a problem. Emre Kizilkaya, managing editor of the Hurriyet Daily News, told Fusion that “When there’s a blanket ban [on social media], generally the number of readers drop.”
Kizilkaya explained that many of the outlet's Turkish readers reach articles through Facebook. Thankfully, he added, Facebook responded relatively quickly to last week’s ban. “They noticed the ban quickly, and in less than two hours they removed the content. So it did not really affect people here.” Twitter, on the other hand, didn’t fare as well. “For Twitter, it was four or five hours. YouTube was the last one, it took them around eight hours [to resume operations].”
In order to circumvent the ban, Turks used stopgap measures, like a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access their accounts. Said Kizilkaya: “[to get around the ban] You need to install this VPN and make sure it is safe." Not an ideal solution.
… but one that allowed outlets like the Hurriyet Daily News to tweet coverage of the incident as it was unfolding:
This is not the first time Turkish web users have had to work around a social media block. In March of last year, the Turkish government banned Twitter in an attempt to stop the spread of a leaked audio recording that seemed to implicate officials in a corruption scandal. “Changing the Domain Name System [DNS] settings was enough last year,” said Kizilkaya, “ and then the government discovered it and shut that down, too. You don’t need to install anything—just change the numbers once, and you are there. VPN makes the connection slower, so this time the simple, easiest method did not work.”
The ban also served as an opportunity for VPN providers to push their products, Kizilkaya added. “Every time something like this happens, all the VPN providers make campaigns. They see it as a way to get potential customers.”
Kizilkaya said that for outlets like the Hurriet Daily News, this ban was mostly an annoyance: “The Constitutional Court, which is Turkey's top court, ruled last year that blanket bans on social media are violations of democratic rights and cancelled them. So, Turkish people who are now using online tools to circumvent these bans, such as VPN, have reason to justify their response."
Plus, though imperfect, VPN allow most of Turkey's web-savvy Internet users access to banned outlets:
But for government outlets, the blocks are trickier. Kizilkaya shared an anecdote:
“During last year's ban, Turkey's state-run news agency initially stopped using Twitter. Perhaps they were expecting that the officials would soon open it again, so they didn’t use it for several days. More than a week later, though, they saw that then-Prime Minister Erdogan wouldn’t be revoking the ban so quickly… So, they finally started to send tweets again to reach a wider audience, despite the fact that the ban was ongoing. While doing it, they announced that they moved their social media operations to their offices in Brussels and Berlin. They thought that they wouldn’t be breaking the law if they send those tweets from abroad."
This week, he added, “they did not send a tweet the whole time [the ban was in effect].”
Now that the bans have been lifted, some are fighting to make sure they don't happen again. Reuters reports that two academics are trying to appeal the initial restriction. Kerem Altiparmak, a law professor at Ankara University, told Reuters that "It does not matter that the ban is lifted now. We think it is against the law and are appealing… Both Twitter and YouTube are now hostage as they implement all the decisions taken by the courts." For now, it's back to business as usual.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.