Embattled Turkey Prime Minister: 'We Will Wipe Out Twitter'

Turkish Prime Minister arrives in Canakkale
Ali Atmaca, Anadolu Agency/Getty ImagesTurkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
By Sarah Frier, Mehul Srivastava and Benjamin Harvey

Twitter (TWTR) access was blocked in Turkey after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the microblogging service ignored court orders to remove content related to a government corruption scandal.

The San Francisco-based company said users in Turkey should send tweets via text messaging instead. Erdogan vowed Thursday to "dig up Twitter and so on -- all of them -- from the roots" at a party rally in Bursa, Turkey. Last week, Erdogan said the country could also block Facebook (FB) and YouTube, owned by Google (GOOG). The tweets targeted by the premier are from two anonymous users: one going by the name of Haramzadeler, a phrase translated by Turkish media as "Sons of Thieves" though it could also mean "bastard," and another called Bascalan, or "Prime Thief."

The person or persons have been leaking documents and audio files, some described as the results of a 15-month prosecutor-led investigation into corruption in Erdogan's government. The leaks have captured the attention of Turkey's 74 million citizens as the prime minister prepares for local elections on March 30.

The leaks also call into question everything from the financial probity of ministers to their religious piety, and provide evidence of a media browbeaten by the government. That's enlivened the opposition and put Erdogan on the defensive amid public allegations of graft involving the premier's family and businessmen who've profited during his 11 years in power.

'No Choice'

While the authenticity of the recordings or police records leaked online can't be independently verified, Erdogan and his government have addressed the allegations in a lawsuit, %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%in parliament and on the campaign trail.

Turkey's Information Technology and Telecommunications Board, or BTK, said Twitter had been blocked upon "complaints from our citizens" and "violations of personal rights and privacy," according to a statement on its website Friday.

"The Internet site called Twitter has ignored decisions made by the courts of the Republic of Turkey," the board said in the statement. "Left with no other choice to prevent the incompensable victimization of our citizens, a preventive measure blocking access to Twitter has been imposed in line with court decisions."

Nu Wexler, a spokesman for Twitter, declined to comment.

Criminal Content

On March 7, Turkish President Abdullah Gul had ruled out a complete ban on sites including Facebook and Youtube, while saying that criminal content on the Internet could be blocked. Gul approved a law allowing a government agency to block access to web pages directly, without the need for a court order, last month.

Earlier this week, Erdogan's party prevented the opposition from reading a prosecutor's statement outlining graft allegations about four former ministers in parliament. The ruling party's Nurettin Canikli said there was no need to read them because they'd been leaked and "everyone already has them in their hands."

Turkey's lira has weakened 10 percent since the corruption allegations were made public on Dec. 17 and the stock market has dropped 22 percent in dollar terms, the worst performance worldwide. Turkish two-year bond yields rose 12 basis points to 11.53 percent at 9:30 a.m. in Istanbul on Friday, up from a record low of 4.79 percent on May 17 last year.

'Hollywood Technology'

Local media has reported that the most damaging leaks were yet to come. In a column in Yeni Safak newspaper Thursday, Hayrettin Karaman, a retired professor of Islamic law, pre-emptively denied the validity of a tape he said would be aired, showing him advising Erdogan on whether Islam would permit him to order the killing of politician Muhsin Yazicioglu, who died in a helicopter crash on March 25, 2009.

On Thursday, a prominent Turkish news anchorwoman denied rumors of a sexual affair with the prime minister. The pro-government media had been warning this week that new leaks would use "Hollywood" technology including silicon masks to make actors look like recognizable Turkish personalities.

While the original investigation stalled after prosecutors were removed, laws changed and thousands of police officers transferred, some of the files leaked from "Haramzadeler" have been incorporated into parliamentary record by the opposition.

Foreign Powers

Speaking across Turkey, Erdogan has dismissed one recording as a "montage," described another as "natural" and said the entire investigation is backed by "foreign powers" and spearheaded by followers of a U.S.-based Islamic cleric, Fethullah Gulen. The latter has denied the allegations.

Last month Twitter said the Venezuelan government blocked users' online images, amid protests by opposition groups against record shortages of goods and the world's fastest inflation. China, which maintains a system known as the Great Firewall to limit its citizens' access to the Internet, has banned Twitter and Facebook.

India took steps against some social media channels in an effort to contain ethnic violence in 2012, while stopping short of wholesale shutdowns of the sites.

In a message on Twitter on March 19, "Haramzadeler" promised the leaks would continue until municipal elections and beyond.

"These publications will continue not just until March 30, but until Turkey sees the whole truth," according to the post.

Turkish Prime Minister Makes Good On Promise To Ban Twitter
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