Twitter Blocked in Turkey Amid Sons of Thieves Leaks

Turkey blocked access to Twitter Inc. nine days before local elections, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan acted on his vow to shut down leaks targeting his government amid a corruption probe.

The move was criticized both within Turkey and overseas, as users accessed Twitter via proxies and other work-arounds. President Abdullah Gul was one of them, posting to his Twitter account that the total ban of a social media platform “can’t be condoned” and that he hoped it wouldn’t last.

European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes called Erdogan’s ban a “groundless, pointless, cowardly” act of censorship. European Parliament President Martin Schulz said the premier is “waging a campaign against all the media and press that he cannot directly influence or control.” The White House urged Turkey to “respect the freedom of the press by permitting the independent and unfettered operation of media of all kinds.”

The shutdown entered force hours after Erdogan said San Francisco-based Twitter had ignored court orders to remove content related to the graft investigation. He’s also threatened to block Facebook and YouTube, where users have shared material including videos, recordings and transcripts that were first leaked via Twitter. Some of them are tied to a police investigation of government corruption which has cost four cabinet ministers their jobs and roiled markets.

‘From the Root’

The benchmark stock index has dropped 22 percent in dollar terms, the worst performance worldwide, since the corruption allegations were made public on Dec. 17. The lira has slid 10 percent. It extended losses today, falling 0.4 percent to 2.2388 at 3 p.m. in Istanbul.

The premier says the investigation and leaks are part of an effort to undermine him ahead of March 30 municipal elections. He blames supporters of a U.S.-based Islamic cleric, Fethullah Gulen, within Turkey’s courts and security forces, with support from Turkey’s foreign enemies. Erdogan has responded by removing the prosecutors in charge and purging thousands of police, effectively blocking further inquiries.

At a rally yesterday he vowed to “dig up Twitter and so on -- all of them -- from the roots” and said he didn’t care about the international response.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, said the ban was harming Turkey’s image in the world and the party was applying to overturn it. Lutfi Elvan, the minister for communications, said it was imposed because of a court ruling related to pornographic pictures, Star newspaper reported today.

‘Prime Thief’

Nu Wexler, a spokesman for Twitter, declined to comment. Last month, Twitter said the Venezuelan government blocked users’ online images amid protests by opposition groups against inflation and shortages of goods. China, which maintains a system known as the Great Firewall to limit its citizens’ access to the Internet, has banned Twitter and Facebook.

The tweets targeted by Erdogan are primarily 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 “bastards,” and another called Bascalan or “Prime Thief,” a play on the Turkish term for prime minister.

Almost every day they publish new material, mostly from alleged wiretappings of conversations. The leaks call into question everything from the financial probity of ministers to their religious piety, and provide evidence of a media browbeaten by the government. Ministers say the recordings are assembled by montage.

Hollywood Masks

Earlier this week, Erdogan’s party prevented the opposition from reading a prosecutor’s statement outlining some of the allegations 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.”

Local media has reported that the most damaging leaks were yet to come. In a column in the Yeni Safak newspaper yesterday, Hayrettin Karaman, a retired professor of Islamic law, preemptively 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.

Yesterday, 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 prominent Turks.