Accessibility links

Turkey Targets Social Media Before Tight Referendum

  • Dorian Jones

A statue of modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and a poster of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are seen in his hometown city of Rize ahead of an upcoming referendum, April 4, 2017.

The referendum in Turkey to extend President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's powers is a couple of weeks away, and polls indicate the outcome remains too close to call. The "No" campaign, having little access to mainstream media, is increasingly turning to social media, and human rights groups accuse prosecutors of targeting those who adopt such a strategy.

Turkish law student Ali Gul's video on why to vote "No" highlights, in a humorous way, the dangers of concentrating too much power in one person's hands. It was an instant hit on social media. At the end of the video, Gul rhetorically asked, "Will I get arrested if this video is popular?"

A man walks with a national flag that reads "YES" in Istanbul, April 4, 2017. Turkey is heading to a contentious April 16 referendum on constitutional reforms to expand Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's powers.

A man walks with a national flag that reads "YES" in Istanbul, April 4, 2017. Turkey is heading to a contentious April 16 referendum on constitutional reforms to expand Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's powers.

Within days of its success, Gul issued another video, and he said he knew he would be arrested for making it.

Youth 'deserve freedom'

"I am now going to the prosecutor to give a statement," he said. "I will probably be arrested after that. But it is not important, I am not afraid. The children and youth of this nation deserve freedom and happiness — and not fear, imprisonment and death."

Gul was indeed arrested and jailed — but not for the video. He was detained instead for tweets posted two years ago that were deemed insulting to the president, a crime that carries three years in jail. Gul denied writing them, but his attorneys warned that he was destined to remain in pretrial detention for many months.

A woman stands in front of billboard that reads "NO for my future" in Istanbul, April 4, 2017. Turkey is heading to a contentious April 16 referendum on constitutional reforms to expand President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's powers.

A woman stands in front of billboard that reads "NO for my future" in Istanbul, April 4, 2017. Turkey is heading to a contentious April 16 referendum on constitutional reforms to expand President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's powers.

Turkey researcher Emma Sinclair Webb of U.S. based Human Rights Watch said there appears to be a systematic campaign of intimidation against "No" campaigners on social media.

"I think actually clamping down on individuals, making them a target for punitive measures pre-referendum because they have had a prominent voice in the 'No' campaign, is all about creating a chilling effect which will give the message loud and clear to the general public that you are not welcome to discuss what is at stake in the referendum and you are not welcome to publicly voice opposition of it," she said.

Scores of arrests, closures

Meanwhile, independent mainstream media have been all but crushed. Under emergency rule, introduced after July's failed coup, more than 150 journalists have been jailed and 170 media outlets closed, all critical of the government. The government claims the prosecutions and closures are all related to terrorist actions and coup plotting.

People walk past a display of T-shirts adorned with images of the Turkish flag and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, offered for sale in his hometown city of Rize, April 4, 2017, ahead of an April 16 referendum on extending presidential powers.

People walk past a display of T-shirts adorned with images of the Turkish flag and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, offered for sale in his hometown city of Rize, April 4, 2017, ahead of an April 16 referendum on extending presidential powers.

Most news TV channels broadcast at least three or four campaign speeches a day in support of a "Yes" vote on the presidential powers issue, while the "No" campaign is all but invisible, accounting for only 10 percent of coverage.

For the "No" campaign, social media have become vital, but with more than 2,500 prosecutions for insulting the president in the past six months, social media postings are not without risks.

Observers warn such pressure is likely to intensify as the referendum campaign ends.

Your opinion

Show comments

XS
SM
MD
LG