Social media giant Facebook has waded into one of Europe longest-running conflicts after it banned pages belonging to Turkey's largest pro-Kurdish political party.
The main page of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) came down on Tuesday, October 29, following several warnings about posting content related to a Kurdish militia fighting in northern Syria and an interview with one of its deputies in which she spoke out for political autonomy of “Kurdistan.”
“Facebook policy on censorship and the recognition of the Kurdish identity proved to be worse than that of Turkey,” the party said in a statement.
Long running conflict
An automatic message from Facebook informs an administrator of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) that the main page has been blocked.
Turkey has been in conflict with the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which began a war of insurrection in the 1980s seeking independence for swathes of Turkey's southeast, home to the majority of Turkey's estimated 14 million ethnic Kurds. That demand has since been downgraded to political autonomy for minorities. Still, the PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the European Union, United States and Turkey.
The PKK declared a ceasefire in May as the Turkish government promised democratic reforms to recognize minority rights. Negotiations between the Turkish state and the PKK's jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, are ongoing.
Facebook denies that the page came down over the use of “Kurdistan” -- a term that denotes a Kurdish homeland that encompasses territory in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
Its statement from Facebook's European office to Deutsche Welle reads in full:
“The BDP page was not removed for mentioning the word 'Kurdistan'. It is true that several BDP pages have been taken down from Facebook. This is because these pages have repeatedly breached Facebook's rules. These rules allow users of Facebook to post political content, including controversial views, but prohibit the posting of content that shows support for internationally-recognised illegal terrorist organisations [including the PKK].”
BDP spokesman Cem Bico says the main page came down following the group posting of an interview with BDP's MP Sebahat Tuncel calling for political autonomy for Kurdistan. There is no mention of armed groups.
“In this text you cannot find any specific expression which supports PKK or terrorism as an activity,” Bico told Deutsche Welle.
Some analysts argue that while the BDP is a legal political party – which has deputies in the parliament – its affiliation with the Kurdish movement makes it difficult to separate the party from outlawed militias.
Pro-Kurdish politicians read jailed Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan's call for a ceasefire in March 2013
“They're not the same organization and they're not the same members in terms of the people, but they (both) look to Abdullah Öcalan as their leader,” said Turkey analyst Didem Collinsworth of the International Crisis Group in Istanbul. “The BDP has been very hesitant to condemn the PKK when they engage in terrorist tactics.”
But others said they are puzzled that such content would be flagged by Facebook.
“I took a look at the pictures, read the explanations and I think the decision to forbid them is severe,” said Nihat Ali Özcan, a retired armed forces major with the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) in Ankara. “The government talks with PKK. By the government's own admission, they are trying to take the PKK into the legal sphere. It is possible to find more views, expressions and pictures on Turkish media and internet, which can be considered propaganda.”
Social media as a battleground
Social media in Turkey has proven a potent battleground in Turkey over political, ethnic and religious lines. It's a sphere the government has spoken out against and later embraced with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) recruiting 6,000 activists ) in September to counter anti-government messages which flooded social networks during this summer's Gezi Park unrest and led to criticism of Facebook for suspending some pages used by activists.
“Social media at the moment is the breathing space for many citizens in Turkey,” said Erkan Saka, a social media critic and blogger and assistant professor at Istanbul Bilgi University's school of communications. “In that sense, what happens to BDP is very upsetting. Many were already upset due to suspension of many activism pages. BDP is an official party site. So this shouldn't happen.”
Turkey has one of the highest internet usage rates in Europe with the second-highest numbers of Facebook users – about 33 million – in Europe.
Saka says Facebook may be reacting from direct complaints from nationalists in Turkey.
“I believe there might be a coordinated attack against Kurdish sites – probably by Turkish nationalists – and automatic suspensions happen,” he said. “I wish Facebook administrators could correct these situations. Sometimes they do but it seems that systematic suspensions continue against Kurdish-related pages.”
In the meantime, the BDP's main site remains down even while a copycat site – inactive since 2012 and unrelated to the official party – remains online.
The party says it hopes to have situation resolved soon. “We have been in contact with the Turkey representatives of Facebook,” Bico says.
And as Turkey engages directly with the PKK – which it still considers a terror group – this means old barriers to expression are proving problematic when they appear in new media.
“Turkey is going through a process with the PKK,” Özcan said. “This process makes prohibitions and freedoms to be ambiguous and leads to some absurdities, fallacies and contradictions.”