Twitter blocked in Turkey following premier's threats

Two Turkish women try to connect to the blocked Twitter site at an Istanbul cafe. (Tolga Bozoglu / EPA / March 21, 2014)

In case there were any doubts about Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s slide into authoritarianism, they disappeared in one fell tweet Thursday when the government blocked access to the Twitter social media site. Though in the end, the move may have backfired.

The editorial page noted shortly after Erdogan's Justice and Development Party pushed through a change in Turkish law last month granting Erdogan's government the power to block Internet sites that the move threatened democratic free expression and corruption probes.

Critics speculate that the government hopes both to limit a corruption probe into some of Erdogan's allies and to squelch protests and demonstrations, thus muzzling one of the fundamental rights of citizens in a democracy. The law would help the government disrupt protests before they could come together and hunt down organizers through their Internet use. It also would allow the government, which already has a poor record on press freedoms, to monitor the contacts of investigative journalists.

 Thursday’s shutdown targeted the corruption scandal. From Thursday’s Guardian story:

Erdogan had made repeated threats to shut down social media sites after audio recordings of his alleged conversations suggesting corruption were leaked.

Two weeks ago he suggested that a total ban on sites like Facebook and YouTube were in his thoughts. The point was dismissed days later by the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, but Erdogan then repeated his claims. "We will wipe out all of these," Erdogan told thousands of supporters at a rally in the north-west province of Bursa.

"The international community can say this, can say that. I don't care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is," he said.

Of course, the Internet will not be denied. Twitter offered advice to users that they could get around the block via phone texting systems. Many used “virtual private networks” to get around the government block. In the end, rather than chilling use, Twitter reported traffic in Turkey Thursday set a record.

Oh, and the timing? Turkey faces crucial local elections on March 30. Clamping down on free expression isn't much of a platform.

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Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle