Turkey's bid to make Twitter block reporter part of growing digital censorship trend, advocates say

Turkey's attempt to have Twitter block journalist Mahir Zeynalov is the latest example in a disturbing trend of governments getting social media companies to censor their critics, digital rights groups say.

Social media sites remove content at the behest of governments all the time

Turkey has a long history of censoring social media but rights activists say there's no reason for companies to play ball. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Two years after Turkey deported journalist Mahir Zeynalov for "posting tweets against high-level state officials," the country's increasingly paranoid government wants Twitter to silence the outspoken reporter for good.

The government has issued a court order demanding Zeynalov's Twitter page and a handful of others be blocked from view within Turkey for "promoting terrorism, violence, and threatening national security and public order." 

Zeynalov's account remains active while Twitter decides what to do about the request.

Twitter and other social media platforms have complied with government censorship demands before — even when they weren't legally obligated to. This has digital rights advocates crying foul over what they say is an increasingly common tactic for quelling dissent.

Turkey's crackdown 

Forced to leave Turkey in 2014,  ​Zeynalov now lives in Washington, D.C., where he uses Twitter to inform his 132,000-plus followers about the Turkish government's crackdown on dissidents in the wake of this summer's failed coup. 

"I have been reporting the arrest of journalists, freedom of press violations, as well as the massive post-coup crackdown on tens of thousands of people," Zeynalov told CBC News. "It is not surprising that the Turkish government wanted to restrict my access to some part of my audience."

Twitter notified Zeynalov of the court order on Sept. 22 and said it may appeal if "there is an appropriate legal basis to do so."

But Zeynalov isn't hopeful. Many of of his colleagues in Turkey have already been blocked, he says, adding Twitter has a track record of bowing to Turkey's demands. 

Twitter did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But according to its own transparency report, the company received 2,493 court orders and other legal requests from Turkish authorities to remove content between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2016 — more than any other country.

Twitter complied in 23 per cent of those cases. 

Any company that has declared itself to be the free speech wing of the free speech party should really think twice about becoming repression's little helper.- Eva  Galperin , Electronic Frontier Foundation

While social media companies are not above the law, digital activists say there's no reason they should bow to regimes like Turkey.

"Twitter does not have any offices in Turkey. It doesn't have any employees in Turkey. It's not legally required to follow these requests from the Turkish government," Eva Galperin, global policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group, told CBC News.

"I think any company that has declared itself to be the free speech wing of the free speech party should really think twice about becoming repression's little helper."

Are some tweets better than none?

So why would a company that brands itself a free speech champion even consider playing nice with a government that's been locking up journalists and shutting down news outlets?

"What the Turkish government always threatens to do is block Twitter, altogether," Galperin said.

Turkey has blocked Twitter, Facebook and YouTube at various points in the past. 

But Galperin notes that only a handful of countries — China and North Korea, for example — have managed to block major social media services for any significant length of time, and people still tend to find ways around it

"I think Twitter should call their bluff," Galperin said. "I think they should do it early and often."

A global censorship trend

What's happening in Turkey is part of troubling a global trend, says Drew Mitnick, policy counsel at Access Now, a global advocacy organization that defends digital rights. 

By Twitter's estimate, removal requests from government agencies increased worldwide by 13 per cent between 2015 and 2016. Facebook received 30,000 government requests for users' data or content restrictions in 2015, up 18 per cent from the previous year, according to its transparency report.

Many of these cases represent legitimate legal violations. Facebook cites gambling, obscenity and death threats among its examples of removed content.

But Mitnick worries that many governments are citing terrorist incitement to quell political speech — like when Facebook suspended the accounts of seven Palestinian journalists earlier this week

"We've seen these platforms which have commonly been the basis for dissent or political speech being used to suppress that feature and to promote the government's platform exclusively," he told CBC News.

Solidarity and death threats 

Zeynalov, meanwhile, is getting lots of support. News of his potential blocking garnered immediate and widespread backlash.

Prominent Canadian columnist Paul Wells deactivated his own account in solidarity with Zeynalov.

"I am very grateful for the solidarity of my colleagues and others who believe that blocking my account means bowing to Ankara's pressure and a clear censorship," Zeynalov said.

In the meantime, he continues to tweet — though he fears for his family back home in Turkey.​

"At a time when Turkish media is suffocated and completely cowed into submission, the only channel critical journalists have is Twitter," says Zeynalov. "And that also is under threat."

About the Author

Sheena Goodyear

Sheena Goodyear is the digital producer for CBC Radio's As It Happens. Originally from Newfoundland and Labrador, her work has appeared on CBC News, Sun Media, the Globe & Mail, the Toronto Star, VICE News and more.

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