The Turkish government’s distrust of social media is well documented, so its reaction to Monday’s ISIS-inspired suicide bombing that killed 32 young Turks near the Syrian border was not surprising. The government temporarily shut down Twitter in an attempt to prevent images of the carnage from being shared. This reaction is too sweeping to be productive, but it is typical of Turkey, whose press Freedom House rated as “not free” and whose Internet policy it rated as only “partly free.”
Turks have a reason to be shaken: Their country’s vulnerability to terrorist attack is clear. A suicide bomber attacked a gathering of young activists agitating for aid to the ISIS-controlled town of Kobani, with the incident killing at least 31 people in the bloodiest terrorist attack in Turkey since 2003. The attacker has been identified as a 20-year-old Turk who became involved with ISIS some two months ago. This incident follows another recent bombing in the town of Diyarbakir in June, in which four people were killed.
Despite this ever-present threat, Turkey has been ambivalent about the fight against ISIS. Fearing the rise of a Kurdish state if ISIS is defeated, it has failed to crack down on the flow of ISIS sympathizers from Europe and the U.S. over its border. Instead, the Turkish government has sought to suppress the free flow of information on social websites, a more congenial response in tune with its attempt to control the Turkish media.
According to the state-run Turkish news agency Anadolu, Twitter was only briefly blocked by court order. Twitter was asked to remove 107 URLs with images of bloodshed from the attack but had already taken down 50 of them. The Associated Press reported that Twitter “removed malicious content, including hate speech, in line with the court order.”
The Turkish response follows a well-established pattern. In April, a Turkish court order blocked Twitter and YouTube in Turkey because the sites did not remove content about a hostage situation at the courthouse in Istanbul on March 31. Last year, Turkey blocked the same two websites after audio recordings of secret meetings that suggested corruption by Turkish officials surfaced on the sites. Turkey’s highest court ruled that the order was unconstitutional.
After this week’s episode, the Turkish Press Council, a journalist group, said that banning social media websites was undemocratic, a view shared by the United States and governments in Europe. The group stated, “It is meaningless to totally shut down social platforms—which contain billions of useful information—to the use of the Turkish people because of some unsuitable content.”
Regrettably, using the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups as an excuse to impose censorship has become a trend among some of the world’s less democratic regimes. In the broader context of the free flow of information and human rights, it is an impulse that should be resisted.