Friday, March 21, 2014

The day Twitter died

Last night, Twitter went offline here in Turkey shortly after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told supporters at an election rally, "We'll eradicate Twitter. I don't care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic!"

And so it happened. Apparently Erdoğan obtained a court order allowing him to take the website down. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media websites have been the target of his ire since the Gezi Park protests for not only allowing activists to air their grievances and coordinate, but the websites have also been used to circulate a bunch of incredibly embarrassing leaked audiotapes. The audiotapes implicate senior businessmen and government officials, including Erdoğan himself,  in corruption. One tape alleged to be between Erdoğan and his son and fellow SAISer, Bilal, has Erdoğan telling his son to hide an incredible amount of money as anti-corruption operations ensnared those in his inner circle. The anti-corruption drive is largely believed to be orchestrated by the shadowy Gülen Movement, which the government claims infiltrated state institutions (I have apparently lived in Egypt too long because I think its not an unlikely possibility this is true).

Erdoğan says the tapes are "fabricated" but also says the Gülenists illegally wiretapped him and his associates and has not refuted the veracity of the content of the tapes.

On a statement published on the website of pro-government Sabah newspaper and translated by Al Monitor, Erdoğan said, "In the ongoing situation, Twitter has remained indifferent to remove certain links despite court orders favoring the citizens of the Turkish Republic. We came to [the] conclusion that in order to relieve our citizens, there is no way left beyond blocking Twitter, which disregards court orders, does not obey the rule of law."

The EU called the ban "groundless, pointless, cowardly."

Turkish President Abdullah Gül, often at odds with the prime minister and considered the more democratically oriented, sent a Tweet the morning after the ban saying he did not approve of the ban and instructed officials to examine legal ways of reopening access.

Turks were certainly relieved. In fact, the Turkish Twitterati quickly took to the social media website to fight back, posting with hashtags such as #twitterisblockedinturkey and #dictatorerdogan. This morning, I could not access Twitter on my phone or normal Google Chrome but was able to get on via a VPN. I didn't necessarily need or want to use Twitter, but if I'm told I can't do something, I'll do it.

Erdoğan apparently failed to get the message that khalas, it happened. The internet was invented. You can't stop it or the spread of information. Information is now open, available--democratic, if you will. Ban Twitter, ban Facebook, ban them all, ban the internet. The world has changed and people will find a way to get to access information.

I've been here for about two months now. There is definitely the feeling Turkey is at a turning point. About a week or so ago, a 15-year-old boy who was hit in the head by a teargas canister during the Gezi Park protests died after being in a coma for 269 days. Turks took to the streets in thousands in a show of support for Berkin Elvan's family and against the system that killed him. He had become a symbol of the opposition and the excessive use of force used against protesters. The police fought back with tear gas and water cannons. Public transport was closed that day to try to keep people from reaching central Istanbul, making my trip home interesting and full of tear gas.

Instead of recognizing the tragedy of a life lost, Erdoğan said the dead child was a terrorist, at first claiming he had a bomb in his pocket (which the security forces apparently kept secret for 270 days and only decided to publicize after the kid died) and later said he had a slingshot.

"The kid with steel marbles in his pockets, with a slingshot in his hand, his face covered with a scarf, who had been taken up into terror organizations, was unfortunately subjected to pepper gas," said Erodğan.

He even got a crowd to boo the dead child's mother, who had said it was not God who killed her son, but the prime minister.

"His mother says, 'My son's killer is the prime minister.' I know love, fondness for one's child, but I could not understand why you threw steel marbles and carnations into your son's grave," Erdoğan told a campaign rally.

She had left marbles in the grave.

There is also a narrative being told by the government that the international community just does not understand what is going on in Turkey--very similar to the narrative perpetuated in Egypt following Rabaa. In both cases, "they" just don't understand. This is a fight against terror and a fight to the death.

Municipal elections are coming up on March 30 and many Turks are holding their breath. A power struggle is playing out between the AK Party under Erdoğan and the Gülenists, with most Turks hostage and democratic ideas be damned.

Opposition leaders have cautioned their supporters against taking to the streets after the Twitter ban and the words against Berkin's mother, saying the government is trying to provoke protesters to justify a heavy-handed response and alienate opposition and their cause from the wider Turkish public.

Many young Turks I talk to have no idea who they will vote for in the elections. They do not like Erdoğan, but the opposition leadership sucks as well and is equally out of touch with the younger generation.

So we wait.

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