Quid Rides? De te Fabula Narratur

What are you laughing at? The joke's on you.

A Turkish Non-Delight: Facebook and Freedom of Speech

Posted by Anthony on January 26, 2015

First, allow me to start off this entry with a blanket statement: I love Turkey. I visited Turkey in 2012, and can honestly tell you that there are very few places in the world I have been that were as enjoyable. For me, it contained the perfect mix of ancient, medieval, and modern along with the fine balance so difficult to find these days of European and Middle-Eastern mixed into one fantastic city: Istanbul. The people are about the best you will find anywhere, the food is excellent, and history is everywhere you step which, to me as an historian, was quite thrilling.

One of the fantastic things about Turkey as well is the cosmopolitan nature of Istanbul. Walking down the street, you could see women wearing fairly short skirts next to women covering everything but their faces; men with kufis and beards at the table next to men with beer and Raki were in every restaurant along the main drags, and the best part was that nobody seemed to mind. Perhaps it’s because of the long history of secularism and tolerance that has existed since the early days of the Republic, or perhaps it has its roots in the fact that Turkic people have (historically speaking) usually been a little more lax with religion than some of their neighbors. Which is precisely why this latest row over a Facebook page has left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

According to the BBC, Facebook has “complied with a Turkish court order demanding the blocking of a page it said offended the Prophet Muhammad.” Apparently, the court had threatened to block Facebook if they did not take action to self-censor. Normally one might simply scoff at the idea and say “go ahead”, but Facebook has (again, according to the same article) some 40 million users in the country and, let us not forget, has made good on promises to shut down other social networking sites in the past (Twitter was shut down, YouTube was threatened). Granted this all had more to do with the perceived offenses of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but the fact remains that once you manage to establish the ability to censor freedom of speech in any one area it makes it that much easier to do so in all others. Within the cult of personality built up by certain world leaders there has always been this unwritten rule that you cannot make them look bad in the media, and savvy players like Erdogan know that the gamble is worth taking: why should an international company risk millions in potential revenue if they can simply point to a “court order” and shrug their shoulders?

Turkey has, over the last several years, been slowly turning more conservative: the national airline has banned the serving of alcohol on some domestic flights just to show one clear example, and many restrictions have been lifted on religious schools and Koran courses all with the aim of “build(ing) a generation of devout Muslims.” While some people might see that as simply a reflection of the growing power within the provinces (which have always been more conservative than the cities), it bodes poorly because with this rise in religious power has come the inevitable: restrictions on freedom of speech.

When Twitter was banned in Turkey, users of the service found ways around the block. It is completely reasonable to believe that members of Facebook would have followed the same playbook and found a backdoor to the site thus making a mockery of the ban were it to go into effect. Facebook should have known this; one cannot tell me that they had not done their homework here. Instead, it comes off as a sop to the powers that be and they will only continue to pressure these companies as they see fit to further their own agendas. Furthermore, it sets a bad precedent for other countries and it once again gives in to the idea that those who oppose Freedom of Speech can bully those who would stand for it into rescinding that support even if under the guise of “cultural sensitivity”.

In the war on Freedom of Speech, every battle sets a precedent: either those who support it will point to times they have beaten back those forces who would silence them, or those who seek to curtail it will take heart at another victory in the efforts to determine what is acceptable discourse. Those of us who support Freedom of Speech must continue in our relentless efforts to fight for it wherever and whenever it is found to be under attack. There really is no middle ground here: I can only hope that the wonderful and highly intelligent Turkish people realize this before these radicals are allowed to drag them too far into the muck and mire of censorship.

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