Report: ‘Erdoğan uses special courts to muzzle Twitter users in Turkey’

A criminal court of peace in İstanbul, recently established by the government as a specially authorized court with extraordinary powers that contradicts with the universal rule of law, has made highly controversial rulings against Twitter, asking the micro-blogging site to remove the account of the managing editor of Today’s Zaman after a complaint was filed by the Turkish president, his family members and his advisor.

Rulings were issued by Judge Betül Çelik Dizle of the 5th İstanbul Anadolu Criminal Court of Peace on Sept. 9 against Twitter shortly after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his son Bilal, daughter Sümeyye and advisor Mustafa Varank filed complaints against Celil Sağır, a prolific Twitter user and veteran Turkish journalist.

The judge appears to have hastily issued exactly the same ruling to shut down Sağır’s account in relation to the two complaints — one filed on behalf of Erdoğan and his family members and the other on behalf of his advisor. Both complaints were filed separately by the same lawyer, Ahmet Özel. The judge did not even hear Sağır’s defense, raising concerns that the court’s ruling is in violation of the freedom of the press and the right to due process.

The two complaints against Sağır were identical. They claimed the journalist’s tweets can be interpreted as attempting to “incite hatred and animosity” against Erdoğan, his family members and his advisor and that they humiliated them in public. The petitions also claimed that Sağır’s tweets constitute an “assault on personal rights” of the plaintiffs.

Sağır, who manages the print edition of Today’s Zaman, learned about the court order only last week when he received an email from Twitter warning him that his account was at risk of having its content withheld. Twitter also attached copies of the criminal complaints, listing several articles of the criminal code and Constitution that he allegedly had violated and claiming that access to his feed should be restricted.

Erdoğan, his two adult children and his advisor also asked the court to order Twitter to block access to all accounts linked to @csagir, Sağır’s handle, as well as all future accounts likely opened up by the journalist.

The judge in her ruling only mentioned that @csagir should be restricted.

Sağır’s case represents the latest in a growing crackdown on journalists, both national and foreign, in Turkey. Erdoğan has been heavily criticized for restricting the freedoms of expression and the press as he tries to consolidate his power under a de facto executive presidency.

In July, Erdoğan filed a criminal complaint against Today’s Zaman Editor-in-Chief Bülent Keneş on charges that Keneş had insulted him in Twitter messages, although no evidence was offered to support the charges.

Erdoğan had previously filed a different complaint in March against Keneş and three other journalists, Zaman Deputy Editor-in-Chief Mehmet Kamış, Today’s Zaman columnist Emre Uslu and journalist Önder Aytaç, on similar charges of insulting his person.

He had also previously filed a complaint against Today’s Zaman journalist Mahir Zeynalov for posting tweets that purportedly included “heavy insults and swear words in a bid to provoke the nation to hatred and animosity” in December 2013. The tweets were, in fact, mostly about news reports appearing in the media, with no insults directed at Erdoğan.

Weeks later, Zeynalov, who is an Azerbaijani citizen, was deported from Turkey, causing outrage in Turkey and abroad.

To cope with a growing number of requests by local governments, Twitter recently decided to withhold controversial accounts if a relevant court order is presented as part of its strategy to “respect local regulations.” Twitter officials have visited Ankara twice since Erdoğan vowed to “root out Twitter,” and reports indicate that Twitter has bowed to pressure to block accounts that Ankara has complained about.

One of the major blows was to a Turkish whistleblower under the pseudonym Fuat Avni, who tweets both in Turkish (@fuatavnifuat) and English (@FuatAvniEng). Avni, whose real identity is a mystery, exposed unlawful actions of Turkish officials and continues to tweet under another account. Followers of his new account surged to half a million in just a couple of days, raising doubts about the efficacy of suspending accounts.

Twitter told Sağır in an email that they have filed an objection with the 5th Criminal Court of Peace, claiming that that the case contravenes the freedom of the press, a fundamental right protected by the Constitution, which is “barely respected these days,” according to leading world press advocacy bodies.

The Washington-based Freedom House ranked Turkey as “not free” in its latest press freedom index.

Commenting to Today’s Zaman in July, English PEN Director Jo Glanville said, “English PEN is very concerned about Erdoğan’s now habitual use of legal action to silence and intimidate legitimate public comment.” Stating that the freedom of expression includes the right to offend, particularly within the context of comment and opinion relating to politicians and public officials, Glanville added that it is vital for Turkey to promote free speech on issues of clear public interest.

The problem with the criminal courts of peace, highly controversial courts that were recently established after Erdoğan and his political allies pushed legislation in Parliament, is that they act as closed circuit courts. The appeal to judge’s ruling can only be made in the same court and often to the same judge who issued the original ruling. It was designed by the government to go after critics and opponents by orchestrating what appears to be sham trials in politically motivated cases.

If the Turkish court rejects Twitter’s objection, as it did with the case of Avni, Sağır’s tweets won’t be visible in Turkey. His account will still be available to people outside the country and to those who use virtual private networks (VPNs).

Without waiting for the court decision, Sağır created another account (@CelilSgr), which received almost 10,000 followers in just a few days.

“This is just another attempt to restrict freedom of expression in Turkey,” Sağır told Today’s Zaman, adding that a request could be made to remove those tweets of his that seem problematic, as in other similar cases, and that a total block of the feed is another version of “censorship and a blow to the freedom of expression.”

Sağır frequently posts sarcastic tweets to criticize the wrongdoing of officials, asserting that he has never insulted anyone.

“If the court’s decision sets a precedent, this is tantamount to the closure of every account that speaks out against the government,” Sağır said. Noting that these types of measures tarnish the nation’s reputation abroad, Sağır pointed to the controversy surrounding Zeynalov’s deportation from Turkey.

“But he continues tweeting,” Sağır said about Zeynalov, adding that whistleblower Avni similarly continues tweeting. Sağır said he will also keep tweeting with his new account and that measures like the court’s only damage the country’s image. “It is a shame,” he said.

Sağır’s lawyer, Ali Odabaşı, says blocking the editor’s entire feed is in itself a violation of the Internet law and that requests must be made before they are removed. He also said they will challenge the court decision.

“If the padişah [Ottoman sultan] has [the ability to give] orders, we have Twitter [as our domain],” Sağır said in a pinned tweet.

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About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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