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Turkey Targets Social Media Over Arms Scandal Leaks

Turkish authorities are moving fast to scrub the Internet of leaked official documents implying that a Syria-bound arms convoy intercepted by police last year was being coordinated by Turkish intelligence.

Micro-blogging network Twitter is complying with an order issued by authorities Tuesday to stop the sharing of the documents, but Facebook so far has failed to remove the prohibited content from its site and is in discussions with the government. Officials are warning they will block altogether any sites that fail to censor the documents.

Rights activists say they fear the move to rid the Internet of the offending documents might presage another attempt to ban outright Twitter and other social media sites disliked by the Islamist-oriented government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has labeled social media “the worst menace to society.”

Last March, the government, infuriated with the large number of tweets about a major corruption probe involving ministers, banned Twitter. But the following month the constitutional court, the country’s highest tribunal, intervened to lift the controversial ban, ruling the embargo violated freedom of expression and civil rights.

Aid trucks stopped

Turkish gendarmes intercepted the arms shipment in January 2014 after a tipoff prompted a pursuit of three trucks supposedly owned by a Turkish charity, Humanitarian Aid Foundation (IHH), and bound for Syria. Gendarmes stopped the truck between Kırıkhan and Reyhanlı in the southern province of Hatay.

A significant amount of ammunition and weapons were discovered, according to local media reports.

In a media statement the charity, which has enjoyed close ties with the Erdoğan government and is Turkey’s largest supplier of humanitarian aid to Syrians, denied it owned the impounded trucks or had anything to do with the shipment.

The documents leaked online on January 13 - signed judicial proceedings related to the search and seizure - imply that arms belonging to Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) were found in the trucks.

Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), a telecoms regulatory agency, issued a warning that a March 2014 government decree banning coverage of the incident is still in effect. Turkish officials are warning that the gag order will be strictly enforced and any websites that fail to comply, will be blocked.

Turkey's porous borders

Turkey has come under mounting pressure from Western countries to beef up security measures on its border with war-torn Syria amid claims that southeast Turkey has become the main logistical base for jihadists. Both the self-styled Islamic State and al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra channel foreign fighters through southeast Turkey and, according to U.S. and UN officials, smuggle oil from Syrian oilfields they have seized over the border into Turkey.

The girlfriend of one of the Islamist militants who carried out last week’s terror rampage in Paris crossed the Turkish border into Syria last week, Turkish authorities have confirmed.

There have also been longstanding allegations that Turkish intelligence has been channeling weapons to jihadist groups - or helping with the transportation of weapons.

Government denial

Turkish leaders have denied aiding jihadist elements fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which Erdoğan is committed to overthrowing. In a spat with reporters during a visit to Sweden in late 2013, Erdoğan denied there were any foreign jihadists in Turkey and angrily demanded journalists offer proof.

“It is out of question that organizations like al-Qaida or al-Nusra could take shelter in our country. This is slander and lies,” Erdoğan said.

In a recent study the Washington-based think tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, claimed “Southeastern Turkey has now become a jurisdiction for terrorism finance, weapons smuggling, illegal oil sales, and the flow of fighters to Syria. This pipeline serves the interest of several terrorist organizations, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State.”

One of the authors of the report, Jonathan Schanzer, says it is “unclear whether Ankara is explicitly assisting these groups, or whether JN and IS are merely exploiting Turkey’s lax border policies.” But he says, “This latest incident is part of a longer pattern of the AKP government’s efforts to spike important news stories in Turkey. There is a reason press freedom rankings in Turkey continue to plummet. More importantly, these and other stories raise troubling questions about the reckless policies of the Turkish government.”

Last month, Turkish officials reacted angrily to a U.N. report that said Turkey has become one of the primary routes for weapons smuggling to the Islamic State and al-Nusra. Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgiç labeled the claim “unfounded.”

Turkish officials point to the seizure by police in November of 935 rocket warheads in the southern city of Adana near the Syrian border as evidence they are moving to crack down on any arms supplies crossing the border. The governor of the province of Adana, Hüseyin Avni Coş, said, “the seizure of the weapons disproves claims that Turkey is aiding extremist groups.”