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Turkey: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube temporarily blocked as censorship grows

Tuesday 7 April 2015 - 1:00am

turkey-twitterLondon, 7 April 2015 - PEN International is concerned by the news that an Istanbul court gave an order to block access to 166 websites, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube on April 6, for publishing a photograph of slain prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz. The decision came despite a 2014 ruling from the constitutional court against such bans. A criminal investigation has also been launched under Turkey's draconian Anti-Terror Law against seven Turkish newspapers for publishing the photograph. The ban was lifted today after social media sites removed the photo. PEN condemns the Turkish authorities’ use of internet censorship and anti-terror legislation to attempt to prosecute and censor scores of news outlets and social media sites for publishing the photograph in good faith and calls on the Turkish authorities to immediately drop the investigation against the seven newspapers that published the photograph last week. PEN also denounces the use of anti-terrorism laws to silence dissident and critical voices.

‘Such social media bans cast a shadow over any progress that Turkey has made in recent years and raise serious questions about its commitment to international obligations to uphold freedom of expression and its citizens’ access to information.’ said Marian Botsford Fraser, the Chair of the PEN International Writer’s in Prison Committee. ‘The recurrence of such bans in the run up to elections in Turkey is particularly worrying as it creates a climate of intimidation where these companies are pressured to comply with the government’s requests.’

The photograph which prompted the ban features a militant holding a gun to Kiraz’s head in front of a pair of flags belonging to the far-left militant group, the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C). The photograph was initially published on social media on 31 March 2015 during a stand-off between the Turkish police and a pair of DHKP-C militants who had taken Kiraz hostage. Kiraz and his two captors lost their lives soon afterwards during an attempted rescue by the Turkish police. The photograph has since become a matter of significant public controversy in Turkey, with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu describing seven Turkish newspapers who published the photograph as “tools of terrorist propaganda.” Following the prime minister’s comments, a criminal investigation was launched against those seven newspapers under Article 7/2 of the Anti-Terror Law (“making propaganda for a terrorist organisation”) and pages from their websites featuring the photograph were included amongst the 166 websites blocked on 6 April 2015. The blocks against Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have since been lifted after all three companies removed all uncensored versions of the photograph from their sites, although blocks against specific newspaper stories featuring the photograph remain in place.  Reports have emerged that Google had also been threatened with an access block if it fails to remove photograph from its search results.

‘While the decision to publish the photograph might raise legitimate questions about journalistic ethics, PEN strongly objects to the criminal investigation and online bans initiated in the past week in relation to the publication of the photograph,’ said Carles Toner, Executive Director of PEN International. ‘The blanket bans imposed against the likes of Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube - where all content, not just offending content, was blocked - represent a disproportionate mass-interference with the rights of millions of users to freedom of expression and are in contravention of a series of landmark rulings by the Turkish Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights. We urge Turkey to respect these legal precedents and to comply with its obligations to uphold freedom of expression under international law.’

The order to block access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube came a little over a year after a similar ban was imposed on Twitter and YouTube in March 2014. Leading writers from around the world joined PEN in writing an open letter to the Turkish authorities on 28 March 2014 to end the ban.. The Turkish Constitutional Court struck down the bans against Twitter and YouTube as unconstitutional following an international campaign to lift the bans. Access to over 70,000 websites is banned in Turkey under a regime of mass censorship that has been in place since the passage of Law 5651, commonly known as the internet law, in 2007. A series of amendments to Law 5651 in 2014 and early 2015 have granted the government increased powers to censor the internet and established the framework for a mass surveillance program in Turkey that has been criticised by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and various human rights groups including PEN International. PEN is due to publish a report on digital freedom issues in Turkey later in the year.

For further information please contact Alev Yaman, PEN International’s Turkey Researcher at Brownlow House, 50/51 High Holborn, London WC1V 6ER, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, Fax: +44 (0) 20 7405 0339, email: