Amnesty International has called on the Turkish authorities to immediately reverse a "draconian" decision to block the Twitter social media site.
A blocking order on the site came into force in the country on 19 March, following Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threat at an election rally earlier in the day to “wipe out” Twitter. Social media users in Turkey immediately condemned the move and more than a million tweets were reportedly sent in the hours following the blocking order as users found ways to get around it.
The move, a blunt attack on Turkey’s citizens’ right to share and receive information, came just over a week before key local elections in Turkey. Twitter has recently been used to share a series of alleged tapped phone conversations that appear to substantiate claims of Turkish government corruption and interference in business and media.
The Twitter block was enacted by the state telecommunications department following an order from the Istanbul Prosecutor’s office under powers granted by Turkey’s Anti-terrorism Law and additional court orders. The government cited Twitter’s failure to comply with court orders to remove content posted on the site as the reason for website’s closure.
Amnesty International Turkey researcher Andrew Gardner said: “The decision to block Twitter is an unprecedented attack on internet freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey.
“The draconian measure, brought under Turkey’s restrictive internet law, shows the lengths the government is prepared to go to prevent anti-government criticism.
“Social media has long been a thorn in the side of the government. Not only is it well used by critics but the owners of social media sites are seemingly immune from threats and intimidation meted out to the national media.
“The decision to block access to Twitter represents an ominous sign of how Turkey’s government is using the amended internet law to control online content. This amounts to court-sanctioned attacks on freedom of expression.”
Twitter has a reported ten million users in Turkey and use of the site increased rapidly during last summer’s Gezi Park protests. Many people used Twitter to share views and receive information not reflected in mainstream media - much of which has close business links to the Turkish authorities.
In response, the Turkish Prime Minister referred to Twitter as “a scourge”, part of a series of attacks in a broader policy apparently designed to silence and smear those speaking out against the government’s crackdown on the protest movement, including doctors, lawyers and journalists.
Items posted on social media including Twitter have also led to unfair criminal prosecutions violating the right to freedom of expression. In Izmir, 29 young people are currently on trial for “encouraging people to break the law” over tweets they sent about the Gezi Park protests.
Content shared via social media is also being used to help mount a prosecution brought under anti-terrorism laws against several members of Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella organisation that played a leading role in the protest movement.
Internet censorship has been widely practised in Turkey, with pro-Kurdish news sites and gay chat rooms among those targeted by the authorities.
YouTube was also blocked between 2007 and 2010 because of videos posted on the site allegedly “insulting the memory of Atatürk”, the founder of the Turkish Republic.
Google sites remain blocked in Turkey despite a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that the order violates the right to freedom of expression.
Last month the government passed further restrictive amendments to Turkey’s internet law which threaten the right to freedom of expression and privacy. Amnesty called for the amendments to be scrapped and instead for the law to be brought into line with international human rights standards.