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Turkey's Twitter ban beats porn on Google

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Twitter became Turks' most searched word on Google yesterday as they looked for creative ways to beat last week's Twitter ban. Twitter access was blocked by court order after Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan vowed to shut it down in a bout of anger over the increasing circulation of personal attacks against him on social media. This is the latest episode in the feud between the Prime Minister and exiled Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen since the latter's alleged allies in the criminal justice system exposed a corruption scandal December 17th when several individuals close to the PM and cabinet ministers were arrested.

As alleged wiretap recordings of Prime Minister Erdogan and his son circulated on YouTube and Twitter for the past few weeks Mr. Erdogan's anger finally manifested in a ban against Twitter a day after he vowed to close it down. The recordings uploaded on YouTube, which the PM insists are a fabrication, feature alleged conversations between the Prime Minister and his son about removing and hiding large amounts of cash the sources of which are unknown.

Since December 17 the conflict between the Prime Minister and Imam Fethullah Gulen has broken into open warfare as Mr. Erdogan publicly attacked the cleric and his followers, known as "The Community", as a terrorist organisation. The government is said to be preparing a formal request for his extradition from the United States where Mr. Gulen has lived in self-imposed exile for 15 years. It was leaked to the press, however, that ironically it was Mr. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) who had made a recommendation to the U.S. government to grant Mr. Gulen political asylum when Mr. Gulen was under indictment by the former secularist government for sedition.

One upside to the Erdogan-Gulen clash is the release of political prisoners convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the government. After the parliament passed a bill for retrial of journalists, opposition politicians but mostly army officers, those convicted under the so-called Ergenekon conspiracy were released from prison. Others are expected to follow. It appears that the Prime Minister wants to win over the humiliated military by implying that the convictions, some of which were for life sentences in solitary confinement, were the work of a Gulen-dominated and abused justice system. The parliament also abolished the specially empowered courts that passed the sentences as the specially empowered judges comically argued that the parliament had no authority to do so.

The YouTube voice recordings were sprung on the public as the country is preparing to go the polls for municipal elections on March 30. This came after all bureaucrats involved in the December 17 arrests had been reassigned, cabinet ministers sacked, and all those arrested in December were released, apparently just when the ruling AKP thought it was safe to go back into the water. The Internet censorship bill, which makes censorship a simple 24-hour formality, was passed last month for just such a contingency. YouTube, who now has an office in Turkey and pays Turkish taxes, agreed to close down the accounts that uploaded the voice recordings and escaped a ban at least temporarily. Twitter was banned not by direct government action but upon complaint by two citizens that obscene pictures were being posted. Twitter has so far refused to close down the impugned accounts.

Mr. Erdogan has good reason to hate the social media. It was the Internet social media that inflamed and stoked the Gezi Park protests last summer, which was the first major public affront to his rule that shook his prestige at home and abroad. If indeed the Gulen Organisation has infiltrated the police and dug up dirt against the AKP as the PM claims, there's no doubt that the revelations and smear campaign on social media will get progressively more incriminating against him personally as we approach the general elections next year. According to rumours Mr. Gulen has already decided to support the official opposition People's Republican Party (CHP), and CHP and MHP (ultra nationalists) are making deals for strategic voting. Impairment of the social media can throw a monkey wrench into these plans on election day. In any event the March 30 municipal elections will give some indication of how much damage the corruption scandal and YouTube videos have done to the Prime Minister and AKP who, according to most polls, are still riding higher than the opposition parties.

Turkey's Twitter ban has received a harsh response from the White House and the European Union who called it a cowardly act, but the ban has so far not deterred millions of Turks who found creative ways to access it. The Turkish Government keeps closing all loopholes, but the tweeting public is one step ahead of the government. For the first time in history yesterday "Twitter" surpassed "porn" as the most searched word on Google in Turkey. Will Google be next on the hit list?

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