The U.S. Should Unfollow Turkey

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By FPI Board Member Ambassador Eric Edelman, Ambassador Morton Abramowitz, and Blaise Misztal

On midnight on Thursday, Turkey joined the ranks of countries like Iran, North Korea, Syria and China that block their citizens from using Twitter. Unlike those other countries, however, Turkey is a close U.S. ally. Yet, this move is as unsurprising as it is worrisome. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has become increasingly authoritarian of late, engendering ever greater dissent both among its erstwhile political allies and within Turkish society. Erdoğan has resorted to even more oppressive tactics to quash such opposition. The Twitter ban is merely the latest, and most heavy-handed, salvo in his battle for political survival.

That fight is currently being waged on two fronts; social media is instrumental to both. The first front was opened last summer, when large demonstrations—originally organized to protest the plan to raze Istanbul’s Gezi Park—swept the country. The government responded with brutal police tactics to disperse protestors and attempts to keep the media from reporting on what was happening. Protestors used Twitter both as an organization tool and as an alternate journalistic medium, disseminating news that the government-control mainstream press would not. Similarly, when a teenager who had been injured by police in last year’s demonstrations died on March 15, news of the death spread on Twitter, bringing tens of thousands of Turks to the streets once again.

A second political fault line has opened up between Erdoğan and the Fethullah Gülen movement, a faith-based group that had been closely allied with him since 2002. Together they had succeeded in curbing the military’s influence in Turkish politics. But Erdoğan’s aspirations for near absolute control over Turkish state and society required him to remove any competition, even former allies. The allegations massive corruption in Erdoğan’s government that was unveiled on December 17 is believed to be a Gülenist-supported response to the prime minister’s attempt to limit the movement’s political power. Interestingly, Erdoğan has not put much energy into denying the charges. Instead, he has fought viciously to block the cases from ever reaching the courts—dismissing thousands of police and hundreds of prosecutors, as well as reining in judicial independence.

Since Erdoğan has almost successfully quashed the official investigation into these charges, the fight has shifted to the Internet. Anonymous users on Twitter and Youtube have in recent weeks released a barrage of recordings of phone conversations, allegedly between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his family, and his inner circle. These leaked tapes seemingly implicate the prime minister in widespread acts of corruption and bribery. To contain the crisis, Erdogan’s government has passed several laws increasing the government’s power over the judiciary, the media, and the internet – stifling rule of law and freedom of expression.

But the tactics deployed by the government to date have failed to prevent either continued demonstrations or further leaks. Thus, at a March 20 campaign rally, Erdogan took the next step, expressing his intent to ban the social media website, saying “Twitter, mwitter! We will wipe out roots of all,” and decrying those that would oppose this measure, “They say, ‘Sir, the international community can say this, can say that.’ I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the state of the Republic of Turkey is.” And that is exactly what he did.

Empowered by the recently passed Internet law, Turkey’s Communications Technologies Institution (BTK), implemented the Twitter ban, saying “because there was no other choice, access to Twitter was blocked in line with court decisions to avoid the possible future victimization of citizens.” The BTK alleged that the management of Twitter had been unresponsive to requests to remove certain content, and pointed to several complaints that had been filed in Turkish courts, alleging violations of privacy. Under the new Internet law, Turkish authorities can respond to such complaints by requiring internet providers to block access to the offending content.

One of these complaints came from former Transport Minister Binali Yıldırım, claiming defamation by Twitter account @oyyokhırsıza (“no votes for thievery”) in response to strongly-worded tweets against Yıldırım and his son concerning allegations made against them in the corruption scandal. Other complaints came from an individual requesting that Twitter remove a fake account using his name and one demanding that Twitter take down explicit photos shared on the website without her consent.

Some accounts of the new law suggest that it gives the government the authority to decide to not just block specific content, such as individual websites or Twitter users, but entire web services. It is clearly under this interpretation that Twitter ban was enacted. However, Turkish lawyers argued that the complaints submitted to the BTK should have only resulted in blocking certain Twitter URLs and not a blanket ban on the entire website, a sentiment which Turkish President Abdullah Gül echoed in a Tweet of his own: “I hope this ban will not last long. If there is a violation of privacy on Twitter, only the related pages should be blocked. The platform is impossible to block altogether. Such a ban is also unacceptable.”

Prime Minister Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian tactics undermine the central pillar of the decades-long, strategic U.S.-Turkish partnership: Turkey’s growing democracy. The government’s actions, in subordinating the judiciary to the executive, interfering in investigations into criminal activity by members of the government, and now its use of its broader powers to censor the internet wholesale, stifling criticism and accusations against itself, threaten to take Turkey from an imperfect democracy to an autocracy.

American policymakers for too long has refrained from publicly criticizing these developments, even recently praising Turkey as a “strong democracy.” Such reluctance to chastise Erdoğan’s domestic policies might have stemmed from a desire to protect Turkish cooperation on strategic U.S. interests—such as ending the bloody Syrian civil war. But Turkey’s ability to wield regional influence is closely tied to its political health. Erdoğan’s attack on freedom of expression is eroding both, and, therefore, weakening the foundation of Turkey’s alliance with the United States.

Erdoğan might have stopped Turks from tweeting, but he should no longer be able to keep American leaders from voicing their views of his increasing authoritarianism. It is time for Washington to leave behind rhetoric and address the reality of Turkey’s abridgement of freedom of the press, speech, and assembly. We reiterate and urge President Obama to reconsider the recommendation of 84 former U.S. lawmakers, government officials, and national security experts that U.S. officials “make it clear, privately and publicly, that Prime Minister Erdoğan’s autocratic actions and demagoguery are subverting Turkey’s political institutions and values and endangering the U.S.-Turkey relationship.”

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