The debate over free speech and content policy on Twitter– like on other social media sites— is often centered on issues relevant to political and cultural debates in the United States, where the company is headquartered. Yet this discussion of hypothetical censorship obscures the fact that company policies today are already used to silence important voices— journalists reporting from Kurdistan, who provide key information on political and military developments there at great personal risk.
While Twitter is a safer platform for Kurdish reporters and supporters of the Kurdish cause than sites like Facebook— which ban pages and accounts for posting photos of the flags of certain Kurdish groups, or photos of key figures of Kurdish political movements— it still engages in what many Kurds and their supporters believe to be targeted political censorship.
Hosheng Hesen is a Kurdish journalist based in Northern Syria who reports for Ronahi TV, a channel popular among Kurdish communities in both the Middle East and Europe. His work has documented the fight against ISIS and the new, revolutionary society being built in the areas liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces. His current Twitter account, which is his third, has over 11,000 followers. Yesterday, he logged in to find that he was blocked from posting.
"I think they blocked it because I share a lot of the happenings [in] Rojava, and they want to make me silent. I report in Kurdish, Arabic, and a few in English," Heseng told The Region, explaining that his work helps developments in Rojava reach audiences beyond Ronahi's traditional Kurdish-speaking viewers.
He believes that his work was specifically targeted by Turkey, whose longstanding attacks on Kurdish journalism are well-known. "We know Turkey is a prison for journalists, and they report my accounts a lot," he said. "It is unacceptable...we are only journalists who are reporting the truth, and I am not the first journalist who was blocked."
Restrictions on accounts like the one that Mr. Hesen faced are one of many tools that Twitter offers that states like Turkey can use to target Kurdish media. Twitter's content removal policy is another— and it shows its targets directly that state interests are at play.
Turkish court orders calling for the removal of Tweets posted outside of Turkish jurisdiction are common. Many users who posted about Turkey's invasion and occupation of Afrin Canton in Northern Syria were sent notices from Twitter informing them that the Turkish government had included their Tweets in such orders.
The USA Stand With Afrin campaign, a platform for solidarity actions in the United States raising awareness of the situation in Afrin, recieved such an order in May of 2017. The notice contained a PDF file of the court order in question, and provided a link to the Tweet that Turkey wanted to remove.
The offending post used the hashtag #TurkeyTargetsCiviliansInAfrin and showed pictures of devastation in Yelangoz, a village that Turkish forces had bombed during the operation. It was similar to many other Tweets included in the order, which also included photographic or video documentation of potential Turkish violations of the laws of war in Afrin.
Even Western reporters who cover Kurdish issues are at risk of censorship. Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Dutch journalist who has reported extensively from Northern Syria, says he has recieved several of these orders, two relating to Tweets and one relating to his Twitter account as a whole. Van Wilgenburg says he believes he was targeted for that reporting— something few Western journalists have done. "For that reason [reporting on developments in Northern Syria], Turkey was most likely annoyed. I think Turkey also warned Western journalists in private not to be embedded with the YPG or write on Afrin from a Kurdish perspective, adding that it could have legal repercussions," he said.
Turkey makes more content removal requests and targets more accounts than any other state, and targets more individual Tweets than any state but Russia. Twitter justifies the content policy that allows this with language that shows its preference for global reach— and the global advertising market— over freedom of speech and information: "In our continuing effort to make our services available to people everywhere, if we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time."
Twitter's spam policy is also used to target Kurdish media. If a Twitter user attempts to post a link from the main website of Firat News Agency (ANF)'s English language service, they will find a message informing them that their action is not allowed: "This request looks like it might be automated. To protect our users from spam and other malicious activity, we can't complete this action right now. Please try again later."
ANF is an important source for statements from various armed and civilian Kurdish political groups, and provides detailed coverage of political and military developments in the region from a local perspective. Most mainstream media does not report on any of these issues— leaving observers relying on local Kurdish media for essential information. Social media accounts from journalists, activists, and other individuals on the ground are also important for this reason.
It is unlikely that Twitter policies will change, or that the company will acknowledge how its rules are used to target journalism that gives a voice to communities long oppressed by the states under which they live. For now, changes in company policy are mostly superficial, and relate more to Western cultural and political disagreements than to the real problem of state censorship. As long as access to advertising markets in Turkey is at play, this will likely remain the case.