Turkey must ensure free and open debate, online and offline, in the wake of terrorist attack in Suruç

Turkey blocked access to Twitter for several hours yesterday after the social media website initially failed to comply with a court order requiring it to remove all images of a bombing, allegedly linked to ISIS, on 20 July in Suruç, a small town in Turkey on the border with Syria.

The blocking of the social media site came after two days of protests against the bombing and the government’s reaction to it. Police responded to the protests in Suruç with the use of force, including tear gas and water cannon. Following the incident, local authorities have banned all assemblies in Şanlıurfa province, where Suruç is located.

Twitter ban

Access to Twitter was blocked after the social media platform failed to remove all images within the 4-hour deadline imposed by the court of Suruç. Other sites, including Youtube and Facebook, were not affected as they immediately complied with the order. Access to Twitter was restored after a few hours, when the court lifted the ban, citing judgments of the European Court of Human Rights on Freedom of Expression. Twitter had started to remove posts as the court had ordered and it remains unclear whether the site had removed all the images before the ban was lifted.

This is not the first time that Turkey has blocked access to entire social media platforms. Turkey previously blocked access to Twitter in April 2015 and in March 2014.

Under international law, website blocking orders should only be made by a court and be necessary and proportionate. The blocking of an entire social media platform inevitably limits legitimate expression and is therefore unlikely to ever be justified. As an important medium for the live reporting of events, Twitter should always remain accessible regardless of the presence of some unlawful information on its site.

The court of Suruç reportedly justified the order to remove all images about the attack on the grounds that this was necessary to protect the right to life and prevent the disruption of public order and crime. However, it is unclear how the removal of all images of a terrorist attack would ever be necessary or proportionate.

All people have a right to access information, including images, on matters of public interest, which include terrorist attacks and the government’s response to them. We are concerned that the order represents an attempt by the government to stifle public debate on the attacks and to discourage criticism of the government’s policy on Syria, including through the peaceful exercise of the right to protest.

Crackdown on protesters

ARTICLE 19 is also concerned that on 21 July, the Şanlıurfa provincial authorities imposed a blanket ban on all protests, following the violent dispersal by law enforcement of a protest in Suruç against the terrorist attack. Similar protests have also taken place across the country, many of which included expression critical of the government.

Protests are a legitimate exercise of the rights to freedom of assembly and expression, and the Turkish authorities are under a positive duty under international law to facilitate them. Blanket bans on protest over an entire province are disproportionate, and should be lifted.

The protests were dispersed with the use of water cannon and tear gas. It is reported that some participants in the protest launched projectiles against the police, though it is unclear if this preceded or was in response to the use of force by the authorities.

International standards are clear that force should not be used to disperse a protest in response to isolated instances of violence. Even where violence is widespread, the use of force must be a last resort where other means of de-escalation have been exhausted, and be employed in line with the principles of necessity and proportionality. Dispersal decisions must be made according to clear rules, and any use of force must trigger an automatic and prompt review process.

The authorities are under a positive obligation to investigate the circumstances giving rise to the dispersal and use of force in Suruç, ensuring accountability for any unlawful dispersal order or excessive use of force.

Recommendations

ARTICLE 19 reminds the Turkish government that attacks on legitimate expression create an enabling space for extremism. In the wake of terrorist attacks, open discussion and debate are even more necessary. We call on the Turkish government and the courts to:

  • Refrain from blocking access to entire social media platforms;
  • Refrain from ordering the blanket removal of images on matters of public interest, including terrorist attacks;
  • Immediately lift any blanket prohibitions on protests, and facilitate the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly;
  • Automatically and promptly review of any use of force in the dispersal of protests, and ensure accountability for any unnecessary or excessive use of force.
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