Turkey: Twitter ban is an unjustifiable violation of the people’s right to freedom of expression

Turkey’s decision last night to impose a nationwide block on access to Twitter is the most worrying example yet of the government’s ever-tightening grip on free speech and online freedom, particularly since last summer’s Gezi protests. The ban represents a completely unjustifiable bar on 12 million Turkey-based Twitter users and their right to freedom of expression in the run-up to local elections on 30 March 2014 and should be lifted immediately

The block comes in the aftermath of a series of sensational voice recordings which allegedly implicate senior government officials in corruption and media manipulation. The role played by Twitter in enabling the public to access these recordings led Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to call for a total ban on the micro-blogging site.Just hours later, the Directorate of Information Technology and Communication (BTK) implemented the ban.

In its justification for the blanket ban, BTK cited the failure of Twitter to react to court orders to block content allegedly violating citizens’ privacy and personal rights, despite the fact that it appears to have no lawful authority to enact such a comprehensive ban.

This raises serious questions about the institutional independence of BTK and the political motivations behind such a move. Furthermore, even if genuinely unlawful content has failed to be removed in isolated instances, that would not legitimise a blanket ban which is utterly disproportionate in its scope, as was found to be the case in the European Court of Human Rights case of Ahmet Yıldırım v Turkey (2012).

Elif Shafak, author and PEN member, said:

The Twitter ban is yet another attempt to stifle freedom of speech in a country where books can be censored, translators sued, journalists targeted, and where thought can be a crime. Turkey’s peoples, including the young, women, minorities, all deserve a mature democracy. It is unacceptable, and ultimately unworkable, to enforce such a ban in the digital age.

A healthy democracy does not attempt to stifle the voices of its citizens. Twitter is a vehicle of expression that gives a voice to each and every user, regardless of class, religion, ethnicity or political stature. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said that he does not care what the international community says with regard to the Twitter ban; we call on him to care about the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people of Turkey.

Turkey is a state party to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which protect the right to legitimate freedom of expression.We urge the government of Turkey to recognise its obligations under these treaties and to lift the block on Twitter with immediate effect.

For more information about PEN’s concerns around freedom of expression and social media in Turkey, please see English PEN and PEN International’s joint report, The Gezi Park Protests: the impact on freedom of expression in Turkey.

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