Turkish social media users have accused their government of curbing freedom of expression online, after Facebook and Twitter complied with Ankara’s request to remove a photograph from their platforms, or face a countrywide ban.
The Turkish government blocked access to Twitter and YouTube on Monday after images were shared of Istanbul prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz being held hostage last week.
Facebook agreed to the government’s request to remove the photo earlier in the day, avoiding a shutdown, while Google, which owns YouTube, said it was working to restore service, Reuters reported.
The photo in question showed Kiraz with a gun held to his head by members of the far-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C). He was shot, and died in hospital of his wounds. Two gunmen later died in a shootout with security forces.
“Twitter has agreed to shut down accounts and remove images relating to last week’s hostage-taking. The web site will reopen to access very shortly,” a government official told Reuters.
Twitter did not immediately respond to the Star’s request for comment.
“It’s like hitting a wall,” said Sezin Öney, a political science professor at Bilkent University and newspaper columnist, about the ban.
“I think generally young people . . . feel really stuck and they don’t know what to do. It’s really a blow to them on freedom of expression.”
State officials have defended the restrictions, with presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin saying that sharing the image was akin to “spreading terrorist propaganda.”
The government ordered a total of 166 websites to be removed, Hurriyet Daily News reported.
“What happened in the aftermath (of the prosecutor’s killing) is as grim as the incident itself,” Kalin said, according to Reuters. Turkish officials also reportedly launched an investigation into seven Turkish newspapers which published the image.
In March, Turkey’s parliament approved a bill granting ministers the power to shut down websites within four hours if they threaten lives or are deemed offensive to the country’s safety and public order, Hurriyet Daily News said.
But despite Monday’s ban, the hashtag #TwitterisblockedinTurkey was the top trending topic in Turkey and around the world by midday.
Turks have grown accustomed to bypassing government restrictions on their Internet use, Öney said, explaining that she and many others were using virtual private networks (VPN) to get access the websites.
A VPN is a server that allows users to access websites anonymously, and bypass access restrictions on a country’s Internet providers.
Öney told the Star that because Twitter is used primarily in Turkey for political discussions, it has drawn the ire of Turkish leaders, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan once called Twitter “a knife in the hand of a murderer” and he has threatened to “eradicate” the website.
Turkish officials previously shut down Twitter for two weeks in the lead-up to the country’s 2014 presidential elections after wiretapped recordings of conversations by government officials were leaked, purportedly showed government corruption.
“I didn’t think they would ban Twitter again. It created an international shock, as well. It’s quite drastic,” Öney said.
According to Index on Censorship, a group that monitors freedom of expression worldwide, about a dozen countries have blocked social media websites in recent years, including Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and China.
Turkey filed five times more requests to remove content from Twitter in the second half of 2014, the website reported. Between July and December, Twitter received 328 Turkish court orders and 149 requests from Turkish government agencies to remove content.
Twitter said it filed legal objections to 70 per cent of Turkey’s requests.