Two gunmen from a leftist terror group took an Istanbul prosecutor hostage last week, and released a photograph to prove it. The prosecutor and the gunmen died following a police raid, but when the image began circulating online, Turkey’s government took to investigating news sites that published it and blocking websites that posted it.
On Monday, apparently weary of the individual blocks, Ankara decided the hell with it, and banned the internet. OK, not the whole thing – just Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. And only for a matter of hours. But the government threatened to ban Google as well.
Google is the world’s fourth most valuable company, and its most powerful brand, according to the media firm Millward Brown. Turkey blocked Twitter last year, and has previously blocked YouTube as well. But a block of Google – which, in the time you read this sentence, will make about 100,000 searches – would have ranked among the world’s broadest-ever internet censorship initiatives.
Explaining the bans, a spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the photo “the propaganda of a terrorist organisation“. This is a phrase Frederike Geerdink knows all too well. In February, Ankara charged the Dutch journalist, who is based in Diyarbakir and writes mainly for Dutch publications, with spreading propaganda for the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist group.
To reach his destination - winning enough parliamentary seats for the AKP in the June 7 election to alter Turkey's constitution and install a presidential system of government - Erdogan believes he needs only to silence dissent.
The government cited a story for the online news outlet Diken, in which Geerdink referred to a PKK fighter as a “guerrilla”, rather than a terrorist. It’s the type of story she has written countless times. One difference was the language.
“There is no propaganda in it at all,” Geerdink said in an interview this week. “Maybe it’s because I have just started writing in Turkish, on this site, since late January.”
Her trial, which begins on Wednesday, is the first for a foreign journalist in Turkey since 1999, when a criminal court froze a case against the American journalist Andrew Finkel, who had been charged with insulting the Turkish military in a story for Turkish-language daily Sabah. Four years prior, another American journalist, Aliza Marcus, had been charged with provoking racial hatred among Turkey’s Kurds, and acquitted due to a lack of evidence. Her story, written for Reuters, also appeared in a Turkish-language newspaper.
The Turkish government has long made life difficult for its own journalists, while generally leaving foreign reporters free to do their job. No more. A year ago, Azerbaijani journalist Mahir Zeynalov was deported for criticising the government. Just this week, Turkish authorities barred entry to a Der Spiegel photographer, claiming he was an Islamist militant, and Istanbul police filed a report alleging that a 2013 column by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius was part of a vast plot to topple the government.
Pressure is on
“The pressure on foreign journalists is definitely increasing, though I’m the only one being prosecuted so far,” says Geerdink. “I hope it stays that way. I hope this doesn’t become routine.”
Her lawyer tells her she is likely to be acquitted, but her trial is less about prosecuting a criminal than sending a message. So, too, is this week’s social media crackdown, though the hostage photo does raise important issues about online content.
Singularly focused on his sacred march to power, Erdogan is finally nearing the finish line. He beat back the Gulenists – who launched a vast corruption probe that embroiled four ministers and his own son – with purges and a legal counter-assault. After 11 years as prime minister, he won the country’s first direct presidential election last August, and took up residence in a cavernous 1,000-room palace. Most recently, his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) pushed through parliament a security law that gives police unprecedented powers to detain, arrest, investigate and even shoot protesters.
Now, to reach his destination – winning enough parliamentary seats for the AKP in the June 7 election to alter Turkey’s constitution and install a presidential system of government – Erdogan believes he needs only to silence dissent. Thus, in recent weeks his government has vastly expanded its crackdown on free speech.
Dozens of people face jail time, mainly for online criticism. A journalist in southeast Turkey received a suspended prison sentence for “liking” a Facebook post of a story critical of the president. A 28-year-old was fined $3,000 for spitting on Erdogan’s car. Since Erdogan was elected president, former journalist and PhD candidate Daghan Irak has documented 60 government cases involving more than 220 people.
Turks of all stripes
The message is clear: If you get in my way – by criticising the government, insulting the president, or ignoring our demands – we will shut you down. This applies to Turks of all stripes, from beloved entertainers to politicians, from cartoonists to high school students and beauty queens. It also applies to foreign journalists, and to some of the most powerful companies in the world.
AKP supporters, meanwhile, get a different message. In an anime-style cartoon circulating online this week, a headscarved young woman stretches a palm to the viewer, with brows furrowed and mouth open wide.
“I don’t use a VPN,” the text declares, “because I’m a Muslim”.
The overt message – that true Muslims don’t break the law – is reasonable enough. But the subtext is downright Orwellian: “We don’t need to sneak around the social media ban because we trust our government to protect us.”
David Lepeska, a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Financial Times and other outlets. His work focuses on Turkey and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.