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Columns

What the Caged Bird Sings

Turkey’s Twitter suppression latest in disappointing blows to press freedom

By Idrees M. Kahloon

“We will wipe out Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed at a fiery campaign rally in Basra. Hours later, access to Twitter was completely blocked by Turkish authorities, who cited “court decisions to avoid the possible future victimization of citizens,” making Turkey only the second country in the world to ban the site. The first was China.

But this is just the latest setback in a decade-long deterioration of press freedom in both the East and the West.

For Turkey, the drastic move comes just before the embattled prime minister faces municipal elections—he’s been in power for 11 years and is struggling to survive an expansive anti-corruption investigation that already claimed three senior cabinet members in December.

Erdogan has stridently decried the inquiry as a “dirty operation” orchestrated by followers of Fethullah Gulen, an influential Sufi mystic who was once a close ally of the prime minister’s AKP party. Erdogan relied on Gullen’s influence among the police and judiciary to defang a coup-prone Turkish army, eventually convicting more than 300 army officers for plotting to overthrow the new government in 2003. Now, the 20 high-ranking prosecutors who were working on the inquiry were reassigned, often to remote parts of the country.

One desperate move leads to another: Interference with the prosecutors has not stopped a torrent of embarrassing leaks that have been publicized over Twitter and Facebook. Already, one Azeri journalist who tweeted links to articles about the graft scandal was barred from entering Turkey for “posting tweets against high-level state officials.” The straw that broke Erdogan’s back was a leaked recording of apparent phone conversations between the prime minister and his son Bilal, in which father instructed son to hide vast sums of money.

“Get all that stuff in our house out, OK?” Erdogan appears to say. “Dad, could that be? There is your money in that safe,” the younger man alleged to be Bilal responds. “That’s what I mean,” the older man responds.

The straightforward reading of Erdogan’s censorship is one of a ruler’s desperate grasping after fleeting power—much like Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s complete cutting off of his country’s internet traffic in the early days of the Syrian conflict, or the outages Hosni Mubarak’s regime caused during his final days in power.

In a way, that explanation—the errant and erratic moves of floundering autocrats—is comforting. Yes, it deeply concerns the world when a dictator transgresses on essential freedoms of expression and the press, but at least it is the will of one megalomaniac, not the will of one people.

But what of the country that democratically wills itself into the ugly jaws of censorship?

The United Kingdom, certainly no one’s idea of an undemocratic society, has seen its press freedoms erode, with the Guardian newspaper consistently harassed over its detailed exposés on the mass surveillance programs of the American and British governments. Agents of the Government Communications Headquarters—the British analogue of the National Security Agency—oversaw the forced destruction of the newspaper’s computer hard drives.

In October, Prime Minister David Cameron threatened, “It would be very difficult for the government to stand back and not act,” if newspapers “don’t demonstrate some social responsibility,” and stop publishing stories that the government finds damaging.

That these actions are probably within the bounds of British law, as the British courts seem to think, is more discomforting to me than if they weren’t. It’s not as egregious as the Turkish overreach, but the erosion of press freedom anywhere simply can’t be ignored.

In the United States, the Obama Administration’s dogged commitment to leak investigations has led to a similar backslide. Since he took office in 2009, eight leaks have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act, compared to the three prosecutions under all previous presidents combined—investigations that apparently allow the Justice Department to secretly seize phone records from the Associated Press and necessitate the continuing prosecution of the New York Times reporter James Risen for not revealing the sources who informed him of a secret CIA program to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program.

An especially haunting sentence from the Fourth Circuit decision reads: “There is no First Amendment testimonial privilege, absolute or qualified, that protects a reporter from being compelled to testify by the prosecution or defense in criminal proceedings about criminal conduct that the reporter personally witnessed or participated in.” This judicial move—the equation of reporting with espionage itself—does not bode well for the future of national security journalism, where confidentiality of sources is often the only way to hold governments to account.

But the history of the free press is characterized by periods of expansion and regression. Troubled times breed fear, and fear breeds opportunistic politicking. Fear of communism begot McCarthyism, and fear of terrorism begot the Patriot Act and today’s expanded national security apparatus.

But open societies have a self-correcting aspect that gives me hope. Though it often takes far too long, the right decisions are often reached.

A free press is the necessary precursor to transparent governance—the ideal of democracy. People, whether in Istanbul, London, or Washington, recognize that.

And recognition will always be the first step toward right action.

Idrees M. Kahloon ’16, a Crimson editorial executive, is an applied mathematics concentrator in Dunster House.

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