The news flashed around the world on Saturday: twin bomb blasts in Ankara had killed at least 95 people. But within Turkey itself, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government did its best to keep the news from its citizens.
Soon after the blast, Deputy Prime Minister Yalçın Akdoğan sent a request to the Radio and Television Supreme Council, which regulates Turkish media. RTUK then imposed a ban on images of the blast and anything that could cause a “feeling of panic.”
Both the Islamic State and Kurdish rebels are suspected in Saturday’s suicide attack. Tellingly, the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, one of the main military opposition groups, declared a ceasefire with the the government shortly after the explosions.
“Our movement has decided to put our guerrilla forces in a stance of non-activity for as long as there are no attacks on our people or guerrilla forces,” the PKK wrote in a statement.
The attack comes amid the runup to national elections on Nov. 1. The media blackout left many angry and confused as to what was happening.
“The Government reaction has [been] just a common condemnation of terrorism,” Turkish economist Ufuk Tarhan wrote Defense One in an email. “They think HDP (Kurdish Party) is responsible for this last bombing and recently rising attacks. Since media have been polarized, their sayings differ according to their sides! If they are supporting government they accuse all other parties. If they are supporters of other parties, they are all accusing the government (AKP and personally Erdoğan).”
Turkish entrepreneur Murat Saran wrote Defense One: “We do not support this reaction” — that is, the media blackout.
The Erdoğan government, never known as a friend to the press, has only become quicker to hit the censor button as the election draws near. It is currently suing prominent Turkish journalists under spurious charges of “insulting” prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Twitter. And on Friday, Turkish police arrested Bülent Keneş, editor-in-chief for the prominent newspaper Zalman, this time for insulting the president.
“They have deprived me of my freedom since Friday evening on the grounds that I posted critical tweets and continued to post them,” Keneş wrote in a statement from jail. “My fight against Turkey being turned into an open prison where people are intimidated, cowed and silenced will continue no matter the circumstances or situations. I accept being imprisoned for life if it prevents Turkey from turning into an open prison, even by just a little. I only feel wronged, but not guilty against those who violate the law. My fight is against those who have become instruments of despotism. Nothing can break my determination.”
On Sept. 14, police raided the Turkish magazine Nokta, confiscating issues of the most recent issue. The crime, again, was “insulting the Turkish president.” The magazine was also accused of “making Terrorist propaganda”: a picture of Turkish President Erdoğan taking a selfie next to a soldier’s coffin, according to the Hurriyet Daily News, which has also been violently attacked, although not directly attributable to police.
Twitter users in Turkey also reported that Twitter and Facebook were difficult to access on Saturday, though there was no announced official block — as was imposed in July after a previous bombing.
On Saturday, Turkish IT expert Füsun Sarp Nebil surmised that the government, through the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB), could be limiting access to some social media by narrowing the access quota for the Twitter IP.
“Think of the internet like a faucet, but instead of turning it off they simply reduce it,” she said in an interview with BGN News. “For example, they’ll take an address that can normally be visited by 100,000 people at once and limit its access to a thousand people, meaning they’re narrowing the bandwidth. For anyone who comes to the site after the 1,000th visitor, it slows down to a trickle. Thus the user gets frustrated and eventually gives up trying to access the site.”
Representatives from Tunnelbear, a virtual private network provider that dissidents frequently used by dissidents to bypass government censors, observed an uptick in requests over the weekend. “Yeah, we’ve seen another big increase in users coming from Turkey today, on top of the hundreds of thousands who had already downloaded our apps over the last year few months. Twitter being blocked for short periods has unfortunately become a regular occurrence,” company spokesman Ryan Dochuk told Defense One.
In the days of virtual private networks and other means for bypassing government censors, it’s hard to say what effect such tactics have. Either way, as Turks today grieve for the victims of the most recent bombings, many are also mourning the continued erosion of free speech within one of the world’s most important Muslim democracies.