Turkey’s attempt to block access to Twitter appeared to backfire last night as tech-savvy users circumvented the ban while suspicions grew that the prime minister was using court orders to suppress corruption allegations against him and his government.
Turkey’s telecommunications authority confirmed yesterday it had blocked access to the social media network hours after prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to “rip out the roots” of the website.
Tweets have proliferated with links to recordings that appear to incriminate him and other top officials in a corruption scandal that has rocked a country of 75 million which had hopes of joining the European Union.
Turkey has in the past blocked access to YouTube, but this is the first ban on Twitter, which is hugely popular among Turks.
The social network was instrumental in opposition organising flash protests against the government last year.
By midday yesterday, tweets were continuing unabated as users swapped instructions online on how to change settings.
One enterprising user spread the word by defacing Turkish election posters with instructions on beating censors.
President Abdullah Gul – who founded the ruling Islamist AK Party with Mr Erdogan, though the pair are increasingly at odds – was among those who circumvented the order when he contested the decision in a series of tweets.
“I hope this implementation won’t last long,” he wrote.
Links to the leaked recordings have been popping up on two Turkish Twitter accounts – and continued yesterday – including one in which a voice resembling Mr Erdogan’s instructs his son to dispose of cash from a residence amid a police investigation into the alleged abuse of power.
Turkey has been rocked by claims of alleged bribery over the issuing of public contracts for major building projects in Istanbul.
Mr Erdogan, who denies corruption, said the recording was fabricated and part of plot by followers of an influential United States-based Muslim cleric to discredit the government ahead of the 30 March elections.
He has cast the elections as a referendum on his 11-year rule.
Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at the Washington-based Human Rights Watch, said: “Prime minister Erdogan’s move spells the lengths he will go to censor the flood of politically damaging wiretap recordings circulating on social media.”
Earlier, many users trying to access the network instead saw a notice from Turkey’s telecommunications authority, citing four court orders. Turkey’s lawyers’ association asked a court to overturn the ban, arguing it was unconstitutional and violated Turkish and European human rights laws.
Turkey’s main opposition party also applied for a cancellation.
Twitter’s @policy account earlier sent out messages telling Turkish users in both English and Turkish they could send out tweets by using a short message service, though it was unclear how those tweets would be viewable.
European Commission vice-president Neelie Kroes criticised the Twitter ban in Turkey – a country that aspires to join the EU – as “groundless, pointless, cowardly”.
Turkey’s telecommunications authority accused Twitter of violating “personal rights and the confidentiality of private lives” and said access would be restored only when Twitter removes illegal content.
The ban comes amid news reports that even more damaging recordings are about to emerge.
Ms Sinclair-Webb added: “Conspiracy or not, limiting freedom of speech is no way for the Turkish government to tackle a political crisis.”
Mr Erdogan remains by far Turkey’s most popular politician due to support in the conservative Anatolian heartland.
However, his purges of police and judiciary have cast a shadow over what western powershad long claimed was a example of an effective Islamic democracy.