Web Freedom and Transparency in the Turkish PM’s Crosshairs

The Turkish government’s sordid and unavailing commitment to increase the violence in neighboring Syria’s Civil War has apparently coincided with the government’s growing authoritarianism and disregard for its citizens, with PM Erdogan hoping to end the freedom of expression enjoyed by Turks via the internet.

A leaked audio tape appearing on YouTube contained a discussion by high-ranking Turkish officials about moving Turkish tanks on to Syrian territory, shortly after launching missiles at their own country and blaming the Syrian regime as the required pretext. Although the officials later claimed the recording was manipulated, the morbid choice of subjects in their discussion should prove nauseating for any citizens of Turkey.

The talk of moving Turkish tanks into Syria is unmistakable in the recording, as is the detail of the number of men and the nature of the weapons that the Turkish regime intended to use against its own people as an excuse to provoke the war. Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s intelligence chief, says, “I’ll send 4 men from Syria, if that’s what it takes. I’ll make up a cause of war by ordering a missile attack on Turkey.” Can this threat against his own citizens be justified under a national security doctrine? Or are Fidan and his colleagues, in fact, threatening their own country’s national security, and for what?

Although it sounds like the stuff of conspiracy theory, this is serious business. Not only have Turkish government officials confirmed that they have been bugged and these are definitely their voices, but they have reacted by blocking YouTube in Turkey as a direct result of this leak. This exposes a degree of unprecedented fear on the part of the Turkish state. The officials exposed in the leak know that their words were grave and would provoke popular disgust, to such a point that they saw the sudden mass censorship of the world’s biggest video sharing website as their only defense. This can be added to the regime’s violations against web freedom that include the blocking of Twitter, which Erdogan personally referred to as a “menace”, even in the 2013 anti-government protests, and threatened to destroy.

In addition to blocking YouTube, there have been almost hysterical statements from officials caught in the recording, with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu announcing that “Wiretapping our prime minister, ministers and top officials is an open declaration of war against the Turkish Republic.” Erdogan has also lashed out at the leaked conversation as villainous and treacherous against Turkey, regarding it as an act of espionage or even war. Consider, again, that the only one who threatened to actually attack Turkey in this whole controversy was Turkey’s own intelligence chief, speaking in the leaked conversation.

Outbursts from Erdogan’s government in reaction to the leaked audio tape have only further exposed the inner workings of the sinister regime captured in this tape. Even if Twitter and YouTube were blocked for reasons of “national security”, we have reason to believe Turkish officials use those words with cynicism. According to Undersecretary Sinirlio?lu speaking in the tape itself, “national security” issues are nothing but a “cheap domestic outfit” to justify the state giving itself a bigger mandate and more power.

We must seriously consider the ease with which “national security” is regularly invoked by the Pentagon and major US allies in matters that are looking distasteful to their respective publics. All leaks are typically responded to as threats to “national security.” It is an unapologetic cop-out from humiliating situations. The world is still waiting for a shred of evidence that a leak ever jeopardized national security, rather simply humiliating a government and forcing it to reform. To date, no such evidence has ever come forward, and yet some people are still naïve enough to fall for the argument that closed-doors national security prerogatives and closets to hide skeletons are somehow necessary features to keep nations safe.

National security can best be described as a “cheap” excuse to submit in any situation, exactly as the Turkish Undersecretary describes it. Words like “sensitive” and “classified” are, in all countries, usually just code for a cheap excuse to keep the inner workings of a regime out of public scrutiny. The same words are frequently used to censor evidence of war crimes committed by the regime speaking them.

What most so-called “national security” concerns do seem to have in common is that they threaten the state, although they never seem to really threaten the nation (the nation being the people ruled by the state and the source of the state’s legitimacy). In fact, according to the leaked discussion of Turkish ministers, the lives of their own citizens are cheap enough to be replaced with corpses, if this can be part of a story that ends in the state getting increased power and immunity.

Security goals should always be regarded with suspicion and questioned thoroughly by citizens, because it is their security, so they should always have the final say in shaping what it is going to involve. It is especially important to question security actions when closed-doors discussions and apparently censored objectives are involved.

Some critics of transparency see the whole thing as a ridiculous, reckless call that every iota of military intelligence informing the actions of leaders needs to be transparent, but this is little more than a straw man argument. Transparency advocates have never made such a case. They are instead demanding that the limits of the powers and prerogatives of the state be known to the public, and that there be mechanisms to prevent abuse. If not, we can rest assured that the people are as unaware of their security arrangements and their ultimate purpose as cattle.

Harry J. Bentham is a British futurist blogger who has been a contributor at a number of think tanks including the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies since 2013. His work at Press TV and the multi-faith Beliefnet website has gained increasing attention and praise, including in the international media. Commentaries on political and ethical controversies by Bentham have been published at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, H+ Magazine, Dissident Voice and numerous other publications. He edits The clubof.info Blog. Read other articles by Harry.