How reporters are experiencing censorship on social media

From Turkey to Russia, journalists have been asked to remove content

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(Photo: Associated Press)

In mid-January, a number of journalists were notified by Twitter that a Turkish court had issued an order for their tweets to be removed after a judge’s complaint called the tweets defamatory. Many of the tweets were about a controversial court case he launched against police officers whose wiretapping investigation he had previously approved, and many of them mentioned the judge by name. Aysun Yazıcı, a court reporter for the daily newspaper Taraf, deleted her tweet after receiving an email from Twitter.

“As a correspondent, I just shared a piece of news that was true with my followers. Sharing this kind of news with people is my job,” Yazıcı said. Her colleague, Taraf’s political editor Dicle Baştürk, received a similar notification and did not delete her tweet. She says it’s still visible. Days later, Baştürk received another email from Twitter informing her that the company may still have to remove it.

Examples of media-related censorship on social media keep piling up—last week, Facebook withheld images of the Prophet Muhammad for users in Turkey, reportedly acting in response to a court order. Social media companies don’t break down their data on withheld content showing whether journalists are specifically targeted by government removal requests. But the notifications that Yazıcı and Baştürk received point to wider evidence that journalists are experiencing censorship on social media. Where this kind of censorship occurs, it isn’t isolated: In Turkey and Russia, where journalists have been impacted by removal requests on social media, they’re under pressure in other media too.

Turkey is a standout example of how gag orders (sometimes called injunctions or reporting bans) are used to stifle media coverage of breaking news. Over the past year, gag orders there—which prohibit reporting in broadcast, print, and online media—have coincided with removal requests on Twitter and Facebook. And Elif Akgül, freedom of expression editor for the Istanbul-based news website Bianet, said the government’s use of reporting bans has spiked in that time.

“There have been a lot of media bans in the last 10 years, but most concerned coverage of family courts. But when we talk about bans on political issues, there were a lot more of those in 2014,” Akgül said.

But political injunctions on reporting aren’t limited to Turkey: Last June, Wikileaks revealed, for example, that an Australian court had issued a super-injunction (which prohibits reporting on the injunction itself) on bribery allegations against politicians from other countries.

When governments issue gag orders, social media companies can find themselves on the defensive: Though beholden to users, they sometimes comply with foreign governments’ requests to remove allegedly illegal content. Freedom of expression activists have criticized Facebook and Twitter for complying in countries where they do not have offices or are not subject to jurisdiction, because when court-ordered reporting bans are enforced by social media companies, through withholding journalists’ or their sources’ accounts or content, an important source of information is endangered in already restricted media environments. During the 2009 presidential elections in Iran, (the country’s press status was rated “not free” last year by Freedom House) media outlets from outside the country relied on news shared by Twitter users there.

Adrian Shahbaz, a researcher with Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net project, says in recent years, there have been prominent cases of media coverage being prohibited on specific topics in the UK, Israel, and Brazil, where courts have granted government-issued injunctions about topics ranging from discussions held in parliament to prominent arrests and corruption investigations. But they’re hard to enforce online.

“Now governments are looking to in some cases create new laws and in other cases enforce laws that have in the past only been applicable to print media. The overall trend is that internet freedom is declining and people’s freedom to express themselves on social media is declining,” Shahbaz said.

Google, Facebook, and Twitter publish biannual reports listing requests they receive from governments to remove content and provide information about users’ accounts, but it’s hard to draw numbers on how many removal requests affect journalists and news outlets since they don’t provide those details in their reports. Google and Twitter do post requests they receive on the clearinghouse, often including documents sent with the requests.

Even when journalists and news outlets’ social media activity isn’t targeted by removal requests, their sources’ still can be. In 2014, the accounts of pseudonymous Twitter users in Turkey and Russia were withheld after they leaked government documents. The account @b0ltai, a group that tweets in Russian and also goes by ‘Shaltay Boltay’ (which means ‘Humpty Dumpty’), has leaked government officials’ private emails, guidelines for coaching TV stations on how to cover Crimea and Ukraine, and other internal reports that appeared to come from the Kremlin. In Turkey, Twitter user Fuat Avni has predicted raids and arrests on journalists, police officers, and government critics; the account was blocked last year and another account again this January. After their accounts were withheld, both Shaltay Boltay and Fuat Avni then started tweeting from new accounts with similar names.

Journalists continue to cover some of these whistleblowers’ leaks as news, and both Fuat Avni and at least one of the people behind Shaltay Boltay have been interviewed by a few reporters. For journalists reporting on the leaks, having direct contact with the whistleblowers requires security precautions to reassure them their identity won’t be compromised. In an interview over Twitter direct message with Vocativ’s Istanbul bureau chief Elcin Poyrazlar, Fuat Avni said he does not plan to expose his identity and that he is taking safety measures to make sure it isn’t revealed.

“I use this account with a super secure system. Even though there were attacks [against the account] they could not close it down or find me,” Fuat Avni is quoted as saying. Unlike Facebook, Twitter does not have a policy that requires users’ real names, so whistleblowers like Fuat Avni and Shaltay Boltay could adopt pseudonyms for their accounts.

Some of Russia’s other removal requests from the last year have restricted access to Putin critic Alexei Navalny’s invitation to a rally on Facebook and to Ukrainian nationalist group Pravy Sektor’s Twitter account.

Turkey and Russia are just two examples of where censorship on social media impacts journalists’ work, but they’re important ones: Government removal requests on social media interfere with platforms that can offer an alternative to other media. Prior to having her tweet targeted for removal, the journalist Aysun Yazıcı wrote an article in Taraf on a government corruption investigation that has been under a reporting ban. She’s now facing up to eight and a half years in prison for that.

“Even if we share ordinary information with people we face an investigation the next day,” Yazıcı said. Prosecuted for her reporting and censored separately on social media, the removal request for Yazıcı’s Twitter post puts her under even more pressure. There’s now another platform where she can’t write freely.

Facebook and Twitter have drawn some muted support for their options that restrict content only in the country where a removal request originates. Activists point out that governments are more likely to block access to the platforms entirely if they cannot demand selected content be withheld. Twitter’s last three transparency reports from 2013-2014 (the country withheld content tool was first implemented in 2012) show that removal requests have increased over that time. Facebook and Twitter’s transparency reports from July-December 2014 aren’t out yet, and individual cases are for now the only way to determine how journalists are affected by removal requests. (Twitter did not respond to a request for comment for this piece.)

But in places where removal requests have already taken a toll on journalists, some are questioning the companies’ commitment to protecting media freedom. Elif Akgül says social media companies have complied too readily with court orders from Turkey. Courts there target content they claim is illegal. But Akgül says that’s not always true: “It can be arbitrary and aggressive.”

Catherine Stupp is a freelance journalist based in Berlin