The shock waves from Turkey’s Twitter restriction

Monday’s devastating earthquakes in Turkey have led to the loss of thousands of lives but one of the government’s responses to the disaster is troubling. At midday on Wednesday, Twitter was restricted in Turkey.  The quake caused a number online connectivity issues, but this was not the reason that users couldn’t get onto Twitter. It was a direct response to political criticism.

This is according to Alp Toker, founder and director of NetBlocks, which tracks cybersecurity and digital governance.

“Up until Wednesday, we were tracking connectivity issues in real time, on the ground,” Toker told Index, describing regions in southern and central Turkey that have been laid waste by earthquakes. Knowing which regions are offline and have infrastructure impact, is useful for rescue operations, he explained.

“Suddenly, on Wednesday afternoon, we observed filtering of Twitter — which was unexpected — and we were able to verify that this was unrelated to the connectivity issues happening in the south, and that this was targeted censorship of Twitter.”

NetBlocks uses the same techniques that they developed to track internet shutdowns, validating and reporting in real time. It verified the information through its monitoring network, checking the connections, the ability to connect, and looking at the underlying reasons for the service not working. On closer inspection, they discovered that the filter had been applied at ISP (internet service provider) level using an advanced technique that’s been deployed before in Turkey, preventing users from accessing Twitter. This is the 20th such incident that NetBlocks has tracked in Turkey since 2015.

“These mass censorship incidents happen after political scandals, they happen after terrorist attacks, they happen in a variety of circumstances — also during military operations in the south — but it’s the first time that they’ve been applied in the aftermath of a natural disaster,” Toker said.

Turkey’s government has faced intense criticism following the earthquake. Some of those critics, including journalists and academics, have been detained and arrested.

“It was intentional mass censorship applied at a time when people are really using Twitter and relying on it to seek help, and to ask for equipment supplies, but also to get in touch with loved ones and see if friends and family are okay. The idea that such a vital tool would be withheld is shocking,” Toker said. “There are reports that people under the rubble use Twitter to connect with the outside world. So it’s literally a lifeline in that context.”

When phone lines are overloaded, he said, using Twitter to reach out for help makes sense.

“All of these use cases have been an absolute reminder that freedom of expression, the right to impart knowledge, is more vital than ever in a crisis and must not be curtailed.”

By midnight, 12 hours later, the restriction was lifted. It came following an outcry, and NetBlocks’s role in validating and reporting the restriction.

What very nearly happened, Toker said, was an internet freedom protest outside the IT Ministry’s office in response to the restriction. Twitter was back before the planned protest took place.

The restoration of Twitter might seem like a success story, but it came at a price. While people were fruitlessly refreshing their timelines, something else was happening.

“Turkish authorities had a meeting with the head of policy at Twitter,” Toker said. “They pressured Twitter into complying more thoroughly with their own takedown demands in future, and they spoke about what the Turkish State perceives as disinformation, but which many others perceive as legitimate free speech and criticism.”

Toker said that Elon Musk’s company is once again in the fray of the Turkish filtering and censorship regime. And as the disaster response continues in the wake of the earthquake, criticism will continue on and offline.

“The big question now is whether Turkey is going to increase its demands for censorship of individual posts from Twitter, and whether Twitter is going to comply with that,” he said. “If Twitter does comply, it’s going to be the first time the company has really engaged in that level of censorship since Elon Musk’s takeover.”

If Twitter complies with Turkey, he said, the door might also be cracked open for censorship demands from other countries.

Chad: Return to democracy still seems a distant prospect

Swearing in ceremony of President Idriss Deby Itno of Chad in 2016. Photo: Paul Kagame, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

More than a year after Chad’s former president was killed in battle, the central African country remains in turmoil and freedom of expression remains under attack.

Idriss Déby Itno was killed in April 2021 on the battlefront between government troops and rebels from the Front for Change and Concord in the north of the country. His death was announced just a day after provisional results from the 11th April president election showed he had won re-election.

The election result was widely seen as dubious. Leading opposition figure Saleh Kebzabo had withdrawn from the elections after family members of another candidate were killed during a deadly shootout.

Chad has been under the increasingly authoritarian grip of Idriss Déby Itno since 1990 when he seized power in a coup.

In March 2018, Déby had implemented a social media ban following widespread public protests against constitutional changes that would have allowed him to rule until 2033. The ban was lifted only 16 months later.

The country has been the target of regular internet shutdowns by the government. The KeepItOn coalition says there were more than 900 days of internet shutdowns, including throttling of internet speeds, total internet blackouts as well as the social media blocks, between 2016 and 2021.

After Déby’s death, the military took control, dissolving parliament and putting a transitional military council (TMC) in charge of the country under the leadership of Déby’s son Mahamat.

The council promised free and democratic elections within 18 months, following a national reconciliation dialogue that would involve parties from all sides.

In September, the TMC appointed a 93-member national transitional council to perform the functions of government. However, some prominent members of Wakit Tama, a coalition of human rights groups and opposition figures, who had denounced the coup were excluded for this.

That process has since moved slowly, and free and fair elections look unlikely any time soon. An inability to agree on who should be involved in the council and any national reconciliation dialogue has slowed the process to a crawl, although some of the parties are now in the Qatari capital Doha taking part in what is being called a pre-dialogue, a process that has already lasted two months.

The transition to fair and free elections has now been thrown into even greater disarray after a number of civil society leaders were detained during protests on 14th May organised by Wakit Tama.

During the protests, several symbols of France’s colonial power, including a number of Total petrol stations, were attacked and policemen injured. Wakit Tama and the four arrested have denied any involvement in the violence.

The four arrested were Gounoung Vaima Gan Fare, secretary general of the Union des Syndicats du Tchad, Youssouf Korom Ahmat, secretary general of the Syndicat des commercants fournisseurs du Tchad, Koudé Mbainaissem, a lawyer and president of the Association for Freedom of Expression, as well as Wakit Tama coordinator Max Loalngar.

The protests were intended to highlight human rights violations in the country, call for the inclusion of human rights defenders in the transition and oppose a continuing French military presence in Chad.

Opposition leader Saleh Kebzabo said the protests threatened the process of reconciliation.

Three days after the protests he tweeted, “In Doha, there is a Chad in miniature where nearly 200 Chadians have been engaged in a debate for two months to participate in the [national reconciliation dialogue]. All Chadians are waiting for this unique moment for a real rebuilding of the country, and I believe it is a unique opportunity.”

“During this time, we learn that other Chadians are preparing the [dialogue] in their own way by marches to ransack and loot, against the French presence in Chad. This is a false debate that risks hiding all our real problems, which are unfortunately many.”

The four are currently being detained at the high security Mossoro prison and will face a court hearing on 6th June, although none has yet been charged with any offence. Front Line Defenders believes that they are being targeted “solely as a result of their legitimate and peaceful work in defence of human rights”. Human Rights Watch calls the detentions “politically motivated”.

Despite the pre-dialogue in Doha, the government has now postponed the main dialogue on a transition to democracy to some unspecified date in the future. The omens are not good.