Emboldened after his slim win in a referendum to broaden his powers, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s purge of voices critical of the government has continued online.
Turkey blocked access today to Wikipedia on April 29, citing a vaguely worded law that allows authorities to block a website deemed obscene or a threat to national security. Wikipedia, the open access site, was down in all languages using a Turkish IP address as of 8am, according to the monitoring group Turkey Blocks.
This comes on the back of Turkish authorities asking of Twitter to block Mahir Zeynalov, a journalist and leading critical voice against Erdogan’s autocratic rule—and it is not the first time.
The journalist gained popularity on Twitter for firing off poignant tweet storms that included the names and personal details of other journalists and academic colleagues who were imprisoned days after the coup in July 2016. Nearly 50,000 people from various professions including civil servants, police officers, judges, teachers have been arrested in the ongoing purge.
He is not the sole target of Turkey’s recent censorship measures.
“Only this week, at least 55 people were put in prison over their posts on Twitter and Facebook. An Italian journalist was detained and then deported. More than 150 journalists are still behind bars, and Turkey’s critical journalists are looking for ways to flee the country,” Zeynalov told Motherboard.
Turkey is one of the worst offenders against press freedom, with 29 journalists facing a mass trial this week. The turbulent country, which is battling the Islamic State on its doorstep in Syria, dipped in the 2017 Press Freedom Index to rank 155 out of 180 because of its witch-hunt against dissenters.
“It is very, very difficult to do objective journalism when the government you’re trying to cover is out there to hunt you,” Zeynalov added.
The government under Erdogan’s iron grip has strengthened with more removal requests on Twitter lodged than any other country, at over 3,000 from July to December 2016, followed by France. With thousands of judges fired or imprisoned after the coup attempt, court requests have also exponentially increased to 844 requests targeting verified journalists and the content they disseminate.
The crackdown is somewhat ironic as Erdoğan has been railing against social media usage in a country that has over 6.5 million Twitter users. He had even implored his supporters to take to the streets against the coup attempt in July 2016 on FaceTime.
Zeynalov is hesitant to contest the latest request to block him from a platform that has been crucial to monitoring Turkey’s descent into a dictatorship. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an intergovernmental security group, said that 2.5 million votes in the referendum could have been manipulated earlier this month, confirming that its fragile democracy is unravelling rapidly with little judicial oversight.
“There is hardly a court in Turkey that would rule in my favor. They will either lose their job or freedom. Twitter said it would appeal the decision and I am not sure to what extent they will battle this decision in the court.”
Zeynalov considers himself lucky that he runs a news outlet from the United States, where he is now based. Even so, he’s concerned about the stifling climate online and offline back in his home country.
“At the moment, I have 52 colleagues only from our newspaper in prisons across Turkey,” he said.”I can only imagine what they are going through behind bars as they are not even allowed to read a book.”