ISTANBUL BLOG: Media ban can't hide Turkey's divisions

By bne IntelliNews October 13, 2015

bne IntelliNews -


Only hours after the deadliest terror attack in the history of modern Turkey shook the nation on October 10, the government imposed a temporary ban on media coverage of the Ankara massacre, citing security reasons, while users started to experience difficulties accessing Twitter and Facebook.

Banning media coverage of political events – or choking off social-media platforms – is hardly unprecedented in Turkey as the government always seeks to control the dissemination of information and dominate the narrative. Social media bans have been imposed frequently after the 2013 Gezi protests, reflecting the government’s increasing intolerance of critical voices that cannot find other outlets to disseminate their views except for social media.

Yet the speed with which the AKP government tried to clamp down following the Ankara massacre only adds to the widespread concerns over press freedom and citizens’ rights to access information under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Worst menace

Erdogan’s hostility towards social media is well-known. Back in 2013 when huge crowds took to the streets against his government, Erdogan infamously said: “To me, social media is the worst menace to society.”

Later that year social media platforms were flooded with audio recordings purportedly showing corruption in the highest circles of the government, and Erdogan allegedly talking with people from his inner circle about how newspapers and TV channels should cover stories. These audio recordings, whose authenticity was never confirmed, were used as evidence in the corruption probes that Erdogan dismissed as a plot to overthrow his government.

Since then the government has tightened the screws on opposition media and social platforms.

“They run all kinds of lies," said Erdogan just before the 2014 elections, adding that Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have to respect the country’s laws. "Turkey is not a banana republic," he declared then.

Turkey may not be a banana republic, but neither is it a beacon of media freedom. The country is one of the world's top jailers of journalists, according to the Committee to Project Journalists. Turkey is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in the 2015 World Freedom Index, down from its 98th place (out of 161 countries) in 2006.

Despite the blanket ban on social media in the summer of 2013, tech-savvy Turks have found ways to get around it and still use these mediums effectively to share information and organise protests. Many Turkish websites circulated detailed instructions for computer-smartphone-illiterates on how to change the domain settings to access Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

Many people now know what to do when the government bans social media and find it a powerful tool for getting information. For example, a Twitter phenomenon, a whistle-blower who tweets under the alias Fuat Avni and has a credible track record predicting government operations well before they actually happened, has more than 2mn followers.

In short, the bans do not work, but only make the country look like a despotic state that violates its citizens’ constitutional right to access information, sparking international criticism.

Narrative needs

The government has struggled to control the narrative after the Ankara bombing. In the aftermath of the bombings, Erdogan only issued a short statement condemning the attack. This is unusual as he normally seeks to dominate the conversation in times of crisis.

But the government knows there will be consequences if it looks weak and incompetent just two weeks before the crucial elections. People have lots of questions in their minds about the bombings; it needs a narrative that could help it ward off criticism.

The pro-government media is therefore busy promoting one version of the story. According to the Sabah newspaper, the attack is beyond the capabilities of the usual suspects, namely the PKK, extremist leftist groups like the DKHP-C or MLKP, and even IS is not capable of carrying out an attack of this magnitude by itself. So, according to Sabah, there is and must be a foreign connection. 

Top government officials think that it is very likely that an intelligence service of a powerful state is behind the attack and outsourced the assault to one of the aforementioned terrorist groups, according to the newspaper.  But, it may still take months to uncover the truth and unearth the complex connections with international dimensions, says Sabah.

“Foreign powers disturbed by the rise of Turkey” is the regular rhetoric used by the AKP, and they do everything to undermine the nation, so the story goes.

The government also tried to clamp down on social media but appears to have used more covert methods to block access to these platforms it deems potentially dangerous, fearing it could face more harsh criticism from international community, especially from its partners the US and the EU, if it imposed an open ban.

Therefore the government did not pull the plug on social media, not officially at least. But people widely reported difficulties accessing Twitter and Facebook. “Users in Turkey are reporting issues accessing Twitter in many areas. We’re investigating”, said Twitter on its official account.

There was no official explanation about why this happened and the whole thing has remained a mystery.

Now, Twitter and Facebook services seem to have been restored and people discuss the massacre in Ankara on social media. Users post angry tweets directed at Erdogan and the ruling government and calls for protest rallies circulate on Twitter and Facebook.

The temporary media blackout could not hide the fact that the suicide bombings have only plunged Turkey deeper into turmoil, as its main political actors have failed to come together to make a united stand against terrorism.

People turn to social media to dig out the truth but they are mostly exposed to speculations, rumours and hate messages that further polarise the country. Strict lines have been drawn between the leftists and rightists, secularists and conservatives, between AKP supporters and anti-government voters, leaving no room for compromise. Newspapers and TV channels are partisan and biased, taking sides in a dangerous political battle that fuels tension and makes Turkey even more unpredictable and volatile.

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