Turkish Government Cracks Down on Social Media in Response to Weeks of Popular Unrest

Communications minister latest to announce heavy handed restrictions on “cyber threats.”

Turkey’s Islamic-leaning government is cracking down on Twitter, Facebook and other social media as the country enters its third week of unprecedented urban rebellion.

A raft of new laws designed to curb unrestricted use of social media – seen as a tool for fomenting rebellion, are being drawn up even though Gezi Park, the focus of weeks of protests was cleared of protestors last weekend by riot police using water canons and tear gas.

On Thursday, June 20, Binali Yildirim, Turkey’s minister for transport, maritime affaire and communications, became the latest government official to issue an edict curbing internet use in the populous Islamic country that has long lobbied for membership in the European Union.

Yildirim announced the formation of a new cyber security agency, the Center for Response to National Cyber Threats -- known by its Turkish acronym USOM.

The minister cited cyber-attacks during the Gezi Park protests as a global threat that was “likely to increase.”

The weeks of protests -- sparked by plans supported by Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to build on Gezi Park, one of Istanbul’s small green spaces close to the Turkish capital’s famous Taksim Square -- have so far cost the lives of four people.

A heavily pregnant woman also miscarried when a security police used tear gas grenades to storm a luxury hotel where people had sheltered during recent clashes to clear the park of thousands of demonstrators.

Earlier this week Turkey’s interior minister, Muammer Guler, said a new law would be drafted to crack down on people who post “provocative material” on social media as a catch-all investigation into the five million Tweets about the Gezi Park protests was launched by the country’s state department.

Guler said that some material published on Twitter, Facebook  and other sites was false and was being used to incite violence.

“We have a study on those who provoke the public via manipulations with false news and lead them to actions that would threaten the security of life and property by using Twitter, Facebook or other tools of the social media,” Guler told Turkish daily newspaper Hurriyet.

Erdogan has already dubbed Twitter a “trouble maker” early in the month soon after the protests started.

 Anti-government activists -- which include many among Turkey’s urban, secular filmmaking and media circles, accuse the government of using the Internet itself to intimidate.

One leading Turkish film and media professional told The Hollywood Reporter that security agencies are believed to behind lists naming directors, producers, actors, television personalities and others from the creative industries as among the ringleaders of the protests.

The list includes names of famous TV actors, including Halit Ergenc, who plays Ottoman Turkish Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in ten episodes of the first series of massively popular TV drama Magnificent Century. The actor was, however, among a number of artists who went to see prime minister Erdogan to explain the protests early in the rebellion before the government used riot police, water canons and tear gas to clear protestors last weekend.

The source, who requested anonymity, said rumors believed to have been started by the government were attempting to scapegoat famous stage, film and television actor and activist Memet Ali Alabora as the originator of an early tweet said to have sparked the protests.

Alabora, who comes from a family of stage and movie actors, is a well-known figure who has been prominent in the protests. Filmmakers’ associations, guild and other bodies maintained a presence in a tent that was erected in Gezi Park, the source said.

“The government are trying to suggest that Alabora sent a tweet that was part of a conspiracy to start the protests,” the source said.

Alabora has appeared in a series of television commercials for Turkish bank Is Bankasi, which is part-owned by opposition party CHB  and the actor has also appeared in a popular Istanbul stage play Mi Minor that involves audiences in interactive actions that it is suggested were rehearsals for the Gezi Park protests, the source said.

Commercial banks are also viewed by an Islamic-leaing government increasingly exhibiting signs of paranoia over the protests as part of a secular movement against Erdogan, who has been in power for 10 years – supported by a large rural hinterland of voters. Those largely Islamic supporters lead lives markedly different from the urban, educated protestors in Istanbul, Ankara and other cities in the past three weeks.

“They are trying to make Alabora  a scapegoat, although he has not yet been arrested,” the source said.

“He has always been actively involved in the protests; he is a very popular figure in Turkey, often on the TV, theater and films. But this is simply paranoia.”

The protests had emerged spontaneously from green groups grown increasingly frustrated with the heavy-handed demolition of large swathes of historic Istanbul.

The failure of a campaign to save a vintage city centre cinema -- the Emek, which was demolished to make way for a shopping mall, galvanised many in Turkey’s booming film and media world to join the wider protest.

“Now the government is beginning a witch hunt and it seems this new law will be rushed through.”

Another source, long involved in film promotion, said although it was probably impossible to check five million tweets, the move was designed to intimidate.

“This is being discussed at the moment, but I do not think that it will be put to use,” he said.

“They say they are looking into five million tweets but I believe it is more of a threat, rather than a reality; but of course you can trust what they [the government] say.”

Turkish Twitter users have been swapping notes on how to avoid being accused by the police of crimes for posting on the site. Advice from a popular internet freedom group, RedHack, suggested that by using IP spoofing proxy servers – which disguise a user’s internet server identifier -- tweeters could avoid detection.

“Even if they know it’s you, they can’t prove it and can’t do anything,” RedHack was reported as saying by Turkish media.

A group calling itself the Film Making Community of Turkey, which maintained a tent in Gezi Park until it was forcibly cleared last Saturday (June 15), has repeatedly called for a peaceful solution.

In a statement made just before the forcible clearing of Gezi Park, the body appealed to Erdogan to stop police violence.

“We demand the termination of police violence, an end to threats of police intervention and continued dialog,” the filmmakers said.

Hamburg, Germany-based ethnic Turkish director Fatih Akin, also urged restraint.

In an open letter to Turkish President Abdullah Gul, first published in German newspaper Hamburger Morgenpost, Akin wrote about the “hundreds of people injured by the police.”

He highlighted the 14 year old boy who had suffered a brain injury after being hit by a tear gas grenade and the lawyers taken into custody.

“Volunteers who want to help the wounded, doctors are arrested as terrorists... threats and intimidation [are used to silence] the media… And you are silent,” Akin wrote, before adding: “Stop this violence!”