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Facebook censorship of BDP

Jacob ResneckNovember 2, 2013

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.

A Turkish woman using a mobile phone to read the news on social media joins demonstrators at midnight in Taksim Gezi Park on June 13, 2013 in Istanbul after a large clean-up operation removed all evidence of unrest, the square cleared of stray tear gas cannisters, anti-Erdogan banners and makeshift barricades. Demonstrators retreated after a night of running battles with riot police as the Turkish Prime Minister moved to crush mass demos against his Islamic-rooted government. AFP PHOTO / OZAN KOSE (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: AFP/Getty Images

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

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.

Screenshot of the Facebook page of the Kurdish Freedom and democracy party, the BDP
An automatic message from Facebook informs an administrator of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) that the main page has been blocked.

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.

PKK members collect signatures in Irbil, Irak for the release of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan from prison in Turkey. © Birgit Svensson May, 2013, Erbil, Iraq
PKK members collect signatures for the release of leader, Abdullah Ocalan, from prison in TurkeyImage: Birgit Svensson

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.

Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) members of the parliament Pervin Buldan (L), Altan Tan (C) and Sirri Sureyya Onder (R) are pictured prior to getting on a boat to Imrali island in Istanbul, on February 23, 2013, prior to a meeting with jailed leader of PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, kept in prison on the island, as part of ongoing peace talks to disarm the PKK. AFP PHOTO/OZAN KOSE (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
The BDP says Facebook´s policy towards Kurds is worse than Turkey´sImage: AFP/Getty Images

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 Sirri Sureyya Onder (L) and Pelvin Buldan (R) read jailed Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan's message on March 21, 2013, in the southern Turkish city of Diyarbakir. The festival is celebrated in Turkey, Central Asian republics, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan as well as war-torn Afghanistan and coincides with the astronomical vernal equinox. Jailed Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan called on March 21 for a ceasefire, telling militants to lay down their arms and withdraw from Turkish soil, raising hopes for an end to a three-decade conflict with Turkey that has cost tens of thousands of lives. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded cautiously to the much-anticipated announcement by saying Turkey would end military operations against Ocalan's outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) if militants halt their attacks. AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-Kurdish politicians read jailed Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan's call for a ceasefire in March 2013Image: Getty Images/AFP

“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.

Based in the mountain stronghold of Norther Iraq, the PKK was been waging a guerrilla war against Ankara since the 80´s Copyright: Karlos Zurutuza, Sergele, Iraqi Kurdistan, March 2013
The PKK, has waged a 29-year campaign for Kurdish autonomy that has claimed more than 40,000 livesImage: Karlos Zurutuza
Police to remove protestors from Taksim Square in Istanbul, on 11.06.2013. Photo: Thomas Rassloff
Social media played a major role in the Gezi Park protests in MayImage: picture-alliance/dpa

“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.”