Turkey Targets Social Media Users Ahead of Referendum

06 April, 2017

In less than two weeks, Turkish voters will decide whether to extend the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The constitutional referendum is set for April 16.

Public opinion studies show the vote will be close.

Most television news channels in Turkey broadcast at least three campaign speeches a day in support of a "Yes" vote on the presidential powers issue. The so-called "No" campaign gets only about 10 percent of the air time that the "Yes" vote gets.

So, the "no" campaign is turning increasingly to social media.

But that comes with risks.

Rights groups say prosecutors are targeting people who use social media to help the "no" campaign gain strength.

A woman stands in front of billboard that reads
A woman stands in front of billboard that reads "NO for my future" in Istanbul, April 4, 2017. Turkey is heading to a contentious April 16 referendum on constitutional reforms to expand President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's powers.

Ali Gul is a law student in Turkey. He made an internet video that explained why people should vote "no." The humorous video told of the dangers of putting too much power into one person's hands. At the end of the video, Gul asked, "Will I get arrested if this video is popular?"

Gul's video spread quickly on social media. Days later, he published another video. In it, he said he knew he would be soon be arrested.

"But it is not important, I am not afraid," he said. "The children and youth of this nation deserve freedom and happiness — and not fear, imprisonment and death."

Gul was later arrested but, apparently, not for the video. He was detained instead for Twitter messages the government says he wrote. The two-year-old tweets were considered insulting to the president -- a crime punishable by three years in jail.

Gul denies writing the tweets. But his lawyers say he is likely to remain detained for many months as he waits for a trial.

Gul is not alone. In the past six months, more than 2,500 people have been accused of insulting the president online.

Observers say such risks are likely to remain as the "power bill" campaign comes to an end.

I'm Ashley Thompson.

Dorian Jones reported this story for VOA News from Istanbul. Ashley Thompson adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

referendum - n. an event in which the people of a county, state, etc., vote for or against a law that deals with a specific issue : a public vote on a particular issue

channel - n. a television or radio station

prosecutor - n. a lawyer who represents the side in a court case that accuses a person of a crime and who tries to prove that the person is guilty