Twitter appears to have blocked access to two Turkish accounts that were used to spread audio recordings implicating the country’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a damaging corruption scandal.
Users attempting to view the accounts — @BASCALAN and @HARAMZADELER333 — in Turkey receive a “Withheld account” message and are unable to see any further tweets or information. This content is still visible outside the country’s borders.
Twitter did not respond to requests for comment or refer to the case directly.
However, in tweets from its official @policy account, the company suggested it would not have removed accounts without a legal ruling from Turkish authorities.
“Reminder: Our Country Withheld Content policy means we act after due process, e.g., a court order,” it said in one post, adding, “We don't withhold content at the mere request of a gov't official and we may appeal a court order when it threatens freedom of expression.”
It went on to say that it would not provide user information about Turkish accounts without “valid legal process.”
Twitter executives met with government officials last week and agreed to remove certain accounts if they received an appropriate court order.
Twitter’s @policy account subsequently tweeted on April 17 to describe “productive and informative meetings” with Turkish officials, and non-government organizations (NGOs) in Ankara and Istanbul.
They did not reach a deal, however, on Ankara’s demand that Twitter open an office in Turkey or pay tax on the $35 million of advertising revenue officials estimates it makes in Turkey.
Erdogan has been openly hostile to social media platforms for some time, particularly Twitter, which he described “the worst menace to society” during the height of the anti-government Gezi Park demonstrations in June last year, where protesters used the microblogging platform to organize themselves and circumvent widespread media censorship.
In the run up to last month’s municipal elections, which were seen by many as a vote of confidence in his leadership, Erdogan threatened to “wipe out” the site then blocked access to both it and YouTube for two weeks.
Twitter was unblocked shortly after the elections when the Turkish Constitutional Court ruled that banning it breached freedom of expression. YouTube is still partially blocked.
Erdogan Audio Leaks
The blocked Twitter accounts have 967,000 followers between them and released a series of recordings purported to be leaked phone calls of Erdogan discussing in great depth how to hide huge sums of money.
The recordings being spread on the two accounts first appeared at the end of December and feature an older man, alleged to be Erdogan, instructing his son to get rid of millions of Euros because the houses of government ministers and prominent businessmen are being searched as part of “a big corruption operation thing.” (An unintentionally amusing dubbed version of the conversation can be heard here.)
Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Turkey on February 25 to demonstrate against corruption, with security forces later intervening to disperse the protesters.
They were supposedly made on Dec. 17, 2013, when police made a series of surprise raids as part of a large-scale graft investigation, which resulted in a number of high profile arrests.
In the recordings, the father instructs the other man, alleged to be Erdogan’s son Billal, to “dissolve” money hidden in a safe.
The two discuss strategies in great depth and name other members of Erdogan’s family.
Eventually, the younger man tells his father, “We still have 30 million Euros that we couldn’t yet dissolve.”
The prime minister dismissed the recordings as a fabrication and part of “treacherous attack” against him and subsequently removed or fired those who had spearheaded the investigation. Nevertheless, he admitted his phone had been tapped and neither he nor his Justice and Development Party have denied that the voices belong to him and Billal.
Instead, he insists that the recordings were “montaged” to implicate them both.
However, US-based cyber analyst Joshua Marpet, who has previously testified on the validity of electronic evidence in a Turkish criminal court case, told VICE News that the recordings appeared genuine.
“From what I can tell, they have not been touched, they have not been adapted or montaged or collaged, and they have not been tampered with,” he said.