The wrong target for Turkey

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s decision to launch a campaign against social media such as Twitter and YouTube has backfired. Rather than stop the attacks, it has only fueled criticism of his government and heightened speculation about allegations of corruption. It is never a good sign when a government starts shutting down the media — attacking the messenger — rather than going after the problem.

For weeks, Erdogan’s government has fended off charges of massive corruption that reached the highest levels of the government, and even tarred members of the prime minister’s family and immediate circle.

Going on the offensive, Erdogan has accused a cabal associated with an exiled Islamic cleric, Fethullah Gulen, of active efforts to undermine his government through a series of orchestrated leaks.

Most recently, a video surfaced on YouTube that purported to show Turkey’s top security officials discussing possible military action against Syria.

In the video, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkish intelligence head Hakan Fidan, Deputy Chief of Military Staff Yasar Guler and other senior officials discuss military options. Coming on the heels of the shooting down of a Syrian fighter jet, the notion of a conflict with Syria was no idle speculation. While conceding that the meeting took place, Davutoglu and Erdogan dismissed the recordings as fabrications, selectively edited to distort the discussions.

Calling the leaks a “cyber attack … against the Turkish Republic, our state and our valued nation” and a “declaration of war against the Turkish state and our nation,” Turkish authorities took administrative measures to block access to YouTube.

Erdogan’s tolerance for social media has been eroding since last summer, when mass protests against his government’s decision to raze a public park began. As elsewhere in the world, social media played a central role in helping organize and mobilize demonstrators. Since then, Twitter has been a primary vehicle for disseminating Web links for audio files that allegedly detailed the government’s corruption.

Fed up, Erdogan last week announced that Turkey would shut down access to Twitter. That prompted yet more criticism, this time from other governments and human rights groups. Meanwhile, Turkey’s digerati managed work-arounds to circumvent the block, giving critics yet one more arrow to shoot at the troubled government.

Erdogan is in a difficult situation. Corruption in Turkey is endemic, but the government’s response to the allegations has been to condemn the leakers rather than go after those alleged to be breaking the law and enriching themselves. Widespread dismissals and transfers of the police and prosecutors working on the corruption probe look more like a coverup than an attempt to get at the truth.

At the same time, though, Erdogan is not paranoid. There does appear to be a cabal operating within the government — and at its highest levels — undermining the legal authority of Turkey for its own interests. Even if doctored, the evidence that has been released originated in Cabinet and top national security level meetings. Someone has access to Ankara’s most inner sanctums and has had no compunction about exposing the most sensitive discussions. The prime minister’s response was knee-jerk nonetheless.

To the country’s credit, a court ruled that the decision to ban Twitter was unconstitutional and ordered the national telecommunications authority to restore access to the service. The government said it has 30 days to assess its options, appeal or lift the ban.

Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) scored a victory over the largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in local elections held Sunday. While the ballots were for mayors and local parliaments, the results could make him the likely favorite in the presidential election to be held in the summer.

However, the squelching of social media gives the country a black eye and again focuses attention on the gap between Turkish practices and those of the European Union, to which Turkey aspires to join. Human rights have long been the problem for Turkey’s EU bid, and recent events reinforce suspicions about the country’s credentials.

Moreover, the clash with Syria, along with recent events in Crimea, are uncomfortable reminders of the instability in Turkey’s neighborhood. This is no time for the distractions created by domestic unrest.

The Turkish government needs to get to the core of the problem: the corruption that is sapping the country’s economic vitality, undermining its democracy and destabilizing a nation that is critically placed in Europe and in Asia. Erdogan and his allies should stop attacking social media outlets like Twitter and YouTube, and instead go on the offensive against corruption.