The Turkish government recently enacted bans against Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and more than 160 other social media sites. The bans were enacted after images of a high-profile hostage situation began circulating online.
According to the New York Times, the images depict an attack that was carried out at an Istanbul court house last week by a leftist group called the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front. The most widely referenced image shows a member of that group holding a gun to the head of Mehmet Selim Kiraz, an attorney who was held hostage and killed during the attack. The two gunmen were also killed during a shootout after negotiations with local authorities failed and police raided the courthouse.
Kiraz had been targeted because he was the prosecutor in the case of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan, a Turkish citizen who died after being hit with a tear-gas canister during anti-government protests last year. Elvan became a symbol of opposition to Turkey’s Erdogan government, which leftist groups and protesters perceive as too capitalist. With the censorship of popular websites, many in Turkey have also found the government to be growing increasingly authoritarian.
Despite the questionable ethics behind the requests, the major social networks like Facebook and Twitter were restored after complying with government requests to remove the images. Google also avoided the threat of a ban by removing links in its search index that redirected users to the images. According to the BBC, the Turkish government described the printing and sharing of the images as “propaganda for the armed terrorist organisation.”
The Internet connects people and is, therefore, a natural tool for subversion. With the events that have unfolded as a result of social media in the Middle East in recent years — from the Arab Spring to ISIS — the Turkish government has a reason to be worried about its citizens organizing online in an attempt to alter the nation’s power structure. According to Twitter’s transparency report, Turkey consistently ranks highest among the nations filing court orders for the removal of tweets, with 328 requests between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2014. Second on the list is Brazil with 27.
According to Reuters, two Turkish academics have appealed the government’s recent court orders, claiming Erdogan has overstepped his authority when it comes to online censorship. Ankara University law professor Kerem Altiparmak and legal academic Yaman Akdeniz are bringing the issue to Turkish courts, and said they would bring it to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary. “It does not matter that the ban is lifted now. We think it is against the law and are appealing,” Altiparmak said. “Both Twitter and YouTube are now hostage as they implement all the decisions taken by the courts.”
As terrible as the hostage situation in Istanbul was, there is no reason that the images should be removed from the web. As recent history has shown, complete online censorship is nearly impossible. People will inevitably find their way around censorship, and once an image is online, it’s hard to stop it from circulating. Yet it’s still a dangerous practice for governments to limit which social networks their citizens are able to access, or to restrict the content that they’re able to share within those social networks. Restricting access to the web is equivalent to suppressing free speech, and no modern government should be able to get away with that level of censorship.