Social media, the very form of communication President Erdogan has earned a reputation for suppressing, came to his rescue during Friday night's chaos.
This article originally appeared on VICE Greece
Between gunshots, injuries, explosions and the sight of tanks in the street, Friday's attempted coup in Turkey has no doubt seared certain memories into people's minds. But an unusual landmark moment from coverage of the instability will surely be CNN Türk's live FaceTime chat with President Recep Tayip Erdogan – the very politician who seemed to hate the social networks and the internet more than anybody else in the world.
Turkey is a Council of Europe member state, started talks about European Union accession in 2005 and has been associated with the European Economic Community since 1963. But one of the reasons its integration into the EU isn't possible for the time being remains its human rights violations – among them is internet censorship. Europe strictly defines the laws for European citizens' free internet access in Article 11 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, for freedom of expression and information.
Since 2007 Turkey has applied Law 5651, which can ban access to sites deemed to feature an "incitement to commit suicide, child abuse, the promotion of drug use, obscenity, prostitution, gambling, the provision of drugs" as well as wider "crimes against Ataturk" that fall under Law 5816. In March 2007, people were banned from accessing the entire YouTube site based on one video that insulted Kemal Ataturk. Every time a user tried to access YouTube, an error message popped up that "access to this site has been blocked by a court decision". Temporary blocks to Wordpress and Daily Motion were also reported.
Three years later after Turkey's YouTube block was lifted, in 2013, people started demonstrating in Taksim Square and the bans became more intense. Although Erdogan's plans to construct a mall over a park triggered the demonstrations, they quickly picked up a political content with citizens reacting to what they deemed the arbitrary nature of their leader's authoritarianism. The Gezi Park protests are now considered to be the biggest of their kind in modern Turkey, with people organising via social networks and using the internet to call rallies and marches. Of course, Twitter and YouTube were banned again.
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By the time news of a political scandal broke in late 2013, key players in the government and a "gas for gold" scheme, citizens were furious. President Erdogan's reaction was to pass one more law giving broader power to the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK or Bilgi İletişim ve Teknolojileri Kurumu). The law allowed internet service providers to collect user data without a mandatory judicial decision to do so. Social networks and other sites such as Vimeo were banned when users uploaded videos seen to promote anti-government gatherings.
As Turks online have said, they live in a country that is uses internet blackouts as a response to political events. The access to specific websites was blocked at least seven times last year, according to Turkey Blocks, an activist group that maps censorship in Turkey.
Even this year, after the attack at the Istanbul's airport, the Turkish government implemented the law on national security to block the sharing of specific material, affecting social media as well as the media. In fact, trying to access Twitter, Facebook and YouTube after any major political development is likely to end like this:
Of course these types of bans usually go hand-in-hand with the deportation of journalists and locking up of those who criticise the current Turkish regime online. Erdogan has now more or less gathered all available powers in his hands and is willing to exercise them against any perceived enemies, whether they are Turkish or not, something that has been highlighted by a number of organisations, such as Reporters Without Borders.
On Friday night, shortly before the attempted coup began, all access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube was once again revoked. This time however, it was not entirely clear if this was ordered by Erdogan or someone else.
About 20 minutes later, Erdogan used Twitter, a social media platform he was previously so keen on silencing, to state that all actions needed to stop this attempted coup would be taken – even if it meant that blood would be spilled – while simultaneously calling on all citizens of Turkey to remain calm.
Soon after, Erdogan would address the citizens of his nation again, asking them to take to the streets and demonstrate against the attempted coup, while talking (via Facetime) to a CNN Turk journalist. Erdogan has of course handed out jail sentences to protestors in the past but clearly, he now thought otherwise. The people responsible for the coup would of course "receive their answer from the people" he went on to say, before announcing that he was on his way back to Ankara. Hours later, he was back on Twitter, saying a further coup attempt could well be coming at any moment, calling on all Turkish citizens to remain vigilant out in the streets.
It goes without saying that the immediate response of the Turkish people to Erdogan's call for action was very much at the heart of why the attempted coup failed to gain any foothold. We will never know what would have happened if Erdogan had not in fact been able to broadcast his call for action, nor will we know if anyone would have been waiting for him at Ataturk airport upon his return.
Ultimately, Erdogan supporters flooded out onto the streets, the coup was stopped and Turkey, a country so deeply divided, is currently not under military control, although it's hard to say of either option the country had concerning this predicament was better. Nevertheless, journalism and the social media networks served Erdogan's goals and once again the message was loud and clear: he who controls such avenues of communication and information, has the power.