US official: Don’t punish technology, people; punish those misusing it

US Department of State Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs Douglas Frantz has said there are still concerns about the Turkish government’s restrictions on people’s access to information through social media, suggesting that instead of punishing those using social media, the government should punish those who misuse it.

“Don’t punish the technology; don’t punish the people who are using Twitter, YouTube, all social media legally and freely. Find out who’s responsible and punish the individual. That’s what a democracy does,” Frantz said during a roundtable on “The Role of an Independent Media in Civil Society” with Turkish journalists at the American consul general’s residence in Istanbul on April 18.

Frantz further said: “I would refer, I think, to a Turkish proverb, which is that you don’t burn the sheep to kill one flea. I think that’s about the translation; I can’t say it in Turkish. And I think that when you try to stop social media you’re using a blunt instrument that punishes the technology not the individuals who are misusing the technology. And I think that’s really the heart of what I want to say about the social media issues here.”

The US previously urged Turkish authorities to respect freedom of the press and restore full access to blocked websites following bans on Twitter and YouTube in Turkey.

Access to Twitter in Turkey was blocked shortly after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to “root it out” only 10 days before the March 30 local elections. Erdogan has said he does not care how the international community reacts and that he will show the world the power of the Turkish Republic. The government was forced to officially lift the ban on April 3 after a Constitutional Court ruling.

Frantz, who was a journalist for 35 years and was previously The New York Times’ Istanbul bureau chief, likened governments today devoting resources to Internet censorship to “21st century book burning,” adding that even friends like Turkey can make such a mistake.

He noted that the release of damning taped conversations involving the prime minister were certainly alarming.

The Turkish government also banned access to YouTube shortly after banning Twitter. It reportedly did so due to a leaked voice recording — featuring Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Undersecretary Hakan Fidan, Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu and Deputy Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Güler discussing the developments in neighboring war-torn Syria — being uploaded onto the site.

“I thought that the last one involving the Fidan conversation was shocking. I think that represented a clear violation of national security in Turkey. [But] you punish the leaker; you don’t punish the technology. And I think that’s a critical difference. Otherwise, as I said, you’re dealing with a blunt instrument. You don’t want to take Twitter or YouTube or any other social media away from the millions of people who use it and who use it freely and legally,” Frantz said.

‘Turkey now at difficult point economically’

The US official also added that Turkey was currently at a difficult point economically. Turkey risks falling into the middle-income trap, where it would have low-value exports, more agricultural exports and where it wouldn’t be able to take advantage of its intellectual capital.

“… I think Turkey needs continued influx of direct investment from foreign countries. It needs to have good relations with foreign countries for its exports, and that, I think, is why the people in Turkey — all people, regardless of your political persuasion — should be concerned about the damage done to Turkey’s image by ineffective efforts to close down social media, to polarize the press and to, in some cases, choose to enforce only the laws that you [the government] want to enforce,” Frantz said.

He also added that, in a democracy, the obligation of all leaders is to follow all laws.

“I hope to deliver a message that the United States remains a strong ally of Turkey and a friend who simply gives … friendly advice, just as we expect Turkey to give friendly advice to the United States,” he added.

‘There wasn’t this kind of polarization that exists now in Turkey’

Comparing the past years in which he lived in Turkey with today, Frantz said, “I had the sense that there wasn’t this kind of polarization that exists now.”

“There weren’t strictly pro-government publications and strictly anti-government publications,” he added. “There were difficulties, I would say, with business interests affecting journalism coverage, but I don’t think that this polarization which I’ve been reading about and hearing about for the last couple of days since I got here — I don’t think it existed then. I think that this is a recent phenomenon.”

Although Frantz believes that this situation is certainly not unique to Turkey, he still thinks that it’s damaging to Turkish democracy.

Referring to US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone’s remarks that the situation in Turkey was damaging to its image in the world, Frantz noted that the image of Turkey, just like the image of the United States, is a valuable commodity.

“I think that that democracy — both in reality here in Turkey and in the perception of people in Western Europe, in the United States — I think that that reality and that perception, they’re both critical to the economic future of Turkey, because Turkey and Turks shouldn’t be happy with where they are economically,” Frantz further said.

He also noted that Turkish people and their leaders will be the ones who determine whether this is an exceptional trend that should be corrected or whether it’s the first stop on a path toward a more authoritarian future. “That’s for the Turkish people to decide. I certainly hope that it’s a brief moment in Turkish history and that Turkey will very soon return to a free and open and independent press,” Frantz said.