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Turkey's latest social media ban smacks of electoral censorship, critics say

Turkish authorities have blocked social media websites over images of a prosecutor who was killed during a hostage standoff last week. Critics say it's yet another censorship move in the run-up to elections in June.

Turkey blocked access to social media services such as Twitter and YouTube on Monday. Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said a prosecutor had sought to block the sites because media organizations had acted "as if they were spreading terrorist propaganda" in sharing images of prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz, who was held at gunpoint and later killed by militants on March 31.

Users had shared these images on social media platforms like Twitter.

In addition to blocking these networks, Turkey has also blocked 166 URLs - specific websites - most of which link to news articles.

It's not the first time Turkish authorities have cracked down social media sites - Erdogan blocked Twitter before holding local elections in March 2014.

Turkish riot police stand guard outside the Justice Palace in Istanbul March 31, 2015. A far-left Turkish group took an Istanbul prosecutor hostage on Tuesday and threatened to kill him, prompting special forces to enter the courthouse and police to evacuate the building. The Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) published a picture of the prosecutor with a gun to his head and said it would kill him at 1236 GMT, three hours after gunmen stormed his office, unless its demands were met (photo: REUTERS/Osman Orsal)

Militants took Istanbul prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz hostage at the end of March

"The demand from the prosecutor's office is that this image not be used anywhere in electronic platforms," spokesperson Kalin said at a news conference in Ankara.

"A request has been made to both Twitter and YouTube for the removal of the images and posts but they have not accepted it and no response has been given. That's why this decision has been taken through a court in Istanbul," the spokesperson added.

An Egyptian-British blogger, however, had already complained on Saturday that Twitter blocked her tweet about Kiraz - Nervana Mahmoud had shared the picture of the prosecutor held hostage, but made a point condemning any form of violence.

Latest move to tighten controls

The social media ban is the latest move to tighten controls in Turkey - right after the prosecutor was taken hostage, the prime minister's office had issued a gag order on media organizations.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) had criticized "the quickly-imposed ban on media coverage" on Thursday.

"This is nothing less than censorship and the fact it has become commonplace is especially disturbing when it is the government that increasingly assumes the responsibility for imposing it. By so doing, it is trampling on the public's right to be informed about a subject of general interest," Johann Bihr, head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said in a statement.

"In Turkey, every sensitive affair is now the subject of a publishing ban," he added.

"There's too much power given to the prosecutors and courts at the moment to censor any content," said Efe Kerem Sozeri, a Turkish researcher and opposition activist based in Amsterdam.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has consistently pushed the "image of the very powerful, ruthless man," Sozeri said. The ban on distributing photos of the prosecutor held hostage was a move to uphold this tough stance, according to Sozeri.

Turkey speeds up the process

Sozeri told DW he has collected more than 300 court orders that ban multiple tweets or Twitter accounts in Turkey. "Turkish courts have even increased the speed to ban more Twitter accounts and statuses," he said. According to his notes, in 2014, more than 70 Twitter accounts and more than 2000 tweets were blocked.

Laptop with YouTube screen (photo: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

It's not the first time Turkish authorities have blocked Internet sites

Turkey's controversial Internet law makes it possible to block entire social media sites, Sozeri said. "If a court says that blocking one URL address is not enough, if that doesn't prevent the crime itself, then a court can give reasoning - seeing that blocking one URL is not enough, we need to block the whole domain - then the court can block the whole domain."

It's just the latest censorship move by Turkish authorities - over the weekend, Cumhuriyet daily reported 58 well-known figures in Turkey were probed for criticizing government-run press Anadolu Agency on Twitter. And according to Hurriyet Daily News, a journalist from a local daily in southeastern Turkey received a suspended prison sentence for liking a Facebook post criticizing Erdogan.

"What these remarks are about Anadolu agency is that (it) is basically turning into a government mouthpiece instead of being an independent news agency," Sozeri said.

"This is where the freedom of speech in Turkey is. Any critical remark, even if it's based on real facts, you are not able to say that, because the interpretation of the law is given to those courts who are under the strong influence of the justice ministry."

New bill to fast-track crackdowns

Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have put measures in place to fast-track Internet crackdowns. Turkey's parliament approved a security bill that also includes greater powers to police the Internet "which will allow any minister to block any website," Sozeri said. "And the homeland security bill is also already ratified, which basically criminalizes any demonstration in the public space. So these are the pressures that we will face in the next two months."

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Erdogan has publicly declared his disdain for Twitter, calling it a "menace"

This view is echoed by the International Press Institute that states in its recently published report: "As Turkey approaches June 2015 parliamentary elections, it does so amid an overall erosion in respect for human rights, including free expression and media freedom. Unfortunately, absent a fundamental change in attitude and behavior by those in power, the corresponding weakening of democracy, a cycle which appears to both sustain and increase itself daily, has no immediate end in sight."

"I am rather pessimistic about this," Sozeri said. "But if we leave this to Erdogan - what we can say and what we cannot say - then we can't really say anything other than 'Erdogan is the best' or 'Erdogan is doing the best thing for Turkey' which is not exactly true. But this is what Erdogan and the party wants us to do, by trying to silence us. This is what they aim for, the public opinion."

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