The Turkish government has blocked YouTube and is outraged over the release of an official recording regarding national and international security questions. The fate of the perpetrators and the government are at stake.
First Twitter, now YouTube. The Turkish telecoms authority TIB said the move to block YouTube was an "administrative measure." But only a few hours before the measure came into force, a rather provocative recording was posted on the site. According to the official view, the audio clip is one of the most flagrant among the many that anonymous opponents of the government have been leaking online over the last few months. It exposes the Islamic-conservative government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan just before the municipal elections scheduled to take place on March 30.
The conversation that was leaked this time is between Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and several heads of the intelligence service and the military. Participants of the conversation were apparently looking for a reason to go to war with Syria.
According to reports from the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet, the Turkish foreign ministry has confirmed the authenticity of the recording and has explained that the conversation took place in the foreign ministry. The ministry also emphasized, however, that the contents of the recording were distorted.
In a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs this explanation was given:
"Monitoring such a meeting of a highly confidential nature which was held at a location such as the office of the foreign minister, where the most sensitive security issues of the state are discussed; and releasing these conversations to the public are a despicable attack, an act of espionage and a very serious crime against the national security of Turkey. This incident reveals the extent the threats of cyber and electronic attacks that Turkey encounters."
The statement called the perpetrators "enemies of our state" and said they would be identified and severely punished as soon as possible.
Erdogan, too, criticized the publication of the conversation during a campaign rally in eastern Turkey. "This is immoral, this is sleaze, this is shameful, this is dishonorable," he said of the leak.
'Desperate and depressing move'
The online community reacted vociferously to the YouTube restrictions. "What's missing in order to throw the country back into the Middle Ages? A block on Facebook? You might as well just turn off the electricity," a Facebook user ranted immediately after the measures blocking access to YouTube came into force. "Now Twitter and YouTube are blocked in Turkey. This is a total repression of freedom of speech," wrote another user.
EU Commissioner Neele Kroes, who is in charge of Europe's digital agenda, called the YouTube step "another desperate and depressing move in Turkey."
The Turkish radio and television supervisory board RTÜK banned several Turkish media outlets from spreading the video or communicating its contents. According to the newspaper Hürriyet, the Turkish federal prosecutor's office has already initiated investigations against those responsible for the video.
Measures taken too far
According to legal expert Bertan Tokuzlu, the recording gives the impression that the government wanted to make trouble internationally, in order to distract the public from internal problems. "If the government wanted to create a reason for war, that is absolutely not in keeping with international legal standards," says Tokuzlu.
But according to the legal expert, another aspect of the problem is at stake here. "This is a case of espionage. The alleged conversation took place in a secure location and it is on a very sensitive topic - the question of whether there should or should not be a war with Syria," he says. Tokuzlu added that the content of the conversation was clearly supposed to be released to the public in order to influence the results of this Sunday's (30.03.2014) local elections.
But blocking the whole YouTube site was never an appropriate solution, Tokuzlu maintains. "There is no reason to block entire sites. You could block individual accounts or videos; that would be legitimate in this sort of a case," he said. Tokuzlu also explained that blocking YouTube could not be compared with the move to block Twitter: "The Security Council in Turkey held an emergency meeting. Right after, YouTube was blocked. That shows how important this case is."
A serious crime
Tokuzlu also said that in Turkish criminal law, there is a chapter about state secrets and espionage. "Article 330 of the penal code could apply in the YouTube case. It concerns information that should be kept secret in the interest of the state as well as in the interest of national and international security. If that article is breached by means of political and military espionage, the perpetrator can expect lifelong detention. It's a very serious crime," the expert said.
The recording also mentions Turkish arms deliveries to Syrian opposition groups. "If that is the case and we have a war crime to deal with, then the public has a right to know this information, according to the European Court of Human Rights," Tokuzlu stressed, adding that the Turkish government's reaction to the publication of the conversation was very thin-skinned. "If the recording provides evidence of a war crime, then that might mean the government will be brought before a war crimes tribunal in the near future. That is a delicate subject."