It's getting expensive to be on the wrong side of the Turkish government. On Friday, Turkey announced it would fine Twitter $51,000 for hosting content the government says promoted terrorism and violence. Though Turkey has repeatedly blocked social media platforms in the past — including both Twitter and the blogging site WordPress — this is the first time the government has levied a monetary fine on Twitter for simply hosting content it deemed unacceptable.
Details about the case are sparse. While Turkey's Information and Communication Technologies Authority announced to reporters it had levied the fine, it did not specify the nature of the content or what if anything Twitter could have done to avoid the fine.
Twitter is not talking to the media about the incident, but a source familiar with the case told VICE News that the content in question was linked to one specific Twitter user: a single Kurdish account that criticizes President Recip Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party.
Internet freedom activists who track Turkey aren't surprised. "Turkish President Reccip Tayyip Erdogan goes on the record and repeatedly complains how big of a nuisance social media is in the country," said Adrian Shahbaz a Research Analyst for Freedom on the Net, Freedom House's annual study on human rights online. He added that Turkey has been among the top three governments in the world that regularly request twitter to censor content.
It's also not surprising that Turkey is putting pressure on Twitter to block Kurdish content in particular. The Turkish government has been locked in multi-decade long war with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which it considers to be a terrorist group. Turkish warplanes are currently bombing Kurdish positions in neighboring Iraq and Syria, and even non-violent Kurdish activists within Turkey are routinely labeled terrorist sympathizers by the state.
In recent years the AK party has stepped up its attacks on the free press — arresting opposition newspaper reporters, and imprisoning its critics for 'insulting the President.' The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet has documented over 150 gagging orders on media outlets over the past five years, largely due to negative reporting on the Turkish government.
The Committee to Protect Journalists consistently ranks Turkey as one of the most inhospitable places for journalists in the world. And VICE News' own Mohammed Rasool — himself a Kurd — has been in prison in Turkey since August, after Turkey accused him of terrorism for helping VICE News report on unrest in Southern Turkey.
In the closed media environment, Twitter has emerged as a clearinghouse for dissident views. And the Turkish government has taken note.
"For years now the Turkish media been considered 'not free' by Freedom House," Shahbaz explains. "But the internet has up until now remained 'partially free.'"
Though Turkey has banned services like Youtube, social media platforms such as Twitter and WordPress have become popular among the political opposition. Shahbaz says things began to shift after Turkish protesters occupied Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013 — the traditional media, afraid of repercussions, largely ignored the movement. But news of the protests spread quickly on social media, and the government began to crackdown.
"Since, there's been a concentrated effort by the ruling party to reign in the internet sphere," Shahbaz said.
Freedom House reports that in the past year alone, dozens of Turkish users faced charges for criticizing the government or public officials — particularly on Twitter. In fact, over the past 6 months, a full 92 percent of all court orders to remove content received by Twitter worldwide originated in Turkey itself. Last March, Turkey tried to shutdown Twitter after audio recordings of government officials involved in corruption were circulated on the platform. Twitter fought the shutdown order, and convinced the Turkish courts to keep the service open.
But over the summer Turkey again temporarily blocked access to Twitter after a deadly terrorist bombing, as a means to control the narrative about the attack, and to silence calls on social media for protests over the government's' response.
The announcement today could herald a shift in tactics for the Turkish government.
"In the past, they would just shut down entire services," Shabazz explained.
"We will defend and respect our users' voice by fighting for their rights to freely express themselves, on politics and other important issues," said a Twitter spokesperson. "It is at the core of everything we stand for as a company."
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