As demonstrating and rioting against the heavy-handed Chinese occupation of Tibet increased in intensity this weekend, it’s not surprising that China cracked down using one of its favorite tools: internet censorship. As of sometime Saturday, the Chinese government had already blocked YouTube in response to protest/riot footage on the site, and recent reports indicate that Google News has also been blocked. The government’s crackdown has already caused the loss of about 80 lives, and it’s doing its best to prevent footage of the crisis from reaching the rest of China (through internet censorship) and the rest of the world (by blocking access to Tibet for journalists). As the 2008 Beijing Olympics rapidly approach, China will be under increasing pressure to improve its deplorable human rights record, which currently includes pervasive censorship, violence against Tibet and its own people, and financing genocide in Darfur. Hopefully other nations will use this as leverage to encourage change for the better in China
Beyond all of this, however, I found a couple of additional aspects of this story particularly interesting. Firstly, it should be pointed out that the primary target of the current censorship campaign is Google (owner of Google News and YouTube). This is interesting because Google has already come under fire (and rightfully so) for so readily agreeing to self-censor its sites in order to do more business in China. Surely, Google would have been subject to much more censorship if it hadn’t acquiesced to the government’s demands–but it could have at least still claimed the moral high ground. Instead, Google has in effect legitimized Chinese censorship, and it doesn’t have much to show for it since–as the recent events show–the government will still censor anything it doesn’t like.
The other interesting aspect is that the Chinese block of YouTube occurred just two days after the Turkish government did the same thing. I was actually in Turkey at the time (on vacation with my girlfriend, Meredith), and I can personally vouch for the fact that the entire YouTube site was inaccessible as of Thursday night. The block was instituted after a video insulting Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was found on the site. Atatürk (who was born Mustafa Kemal but later took on the name Atatürk, which means “father of the Turks”) was the first president and the founder of the Republic of Turkey. Atatürk is ubiquitous in Turkey: his portrait hangs in almost every building, his face is on all currency, and monuments to him and places named after him abound. And, it is a crime in Turkey to insult him.
As ridiculous as this sounds (and, let’s face it: such suppression of free speech has no place in a modern democracy), a little bit of context helps explain this unwavering reverence. Atatürk became the first president of Turkey in 1923, and he served as president until his death in 1938. Thus, he came to power during an era (in the wake of World War I, and later the Great Depression) that spawned a whole cohort of epic political leaders. The results of this were varied. While the Americans under FDR and the Turks under Atatürk largely benefited from a strong hand when it was needed, others–such as the Germans under Hitler and the Italians under Mussolini–didn’t fare so well.
After finding itself on the losing side of World War I, the Ottoman Empire was eviscerated by the war’s victors. However, out of this humiliation arose the Turkish nationalist movement, led by Atatürk. After the War for Turkish Independence established the Turkish Republic in 1923, Atatürk was elected president for the first of his four terms in office. He ruled somewhat autocratically, but unlike most autocrats, he helped foster strong democratic organizations that survived his death. He spearheaded the creation of a modern secular republic–one that survives to this day and whose ideals are a major point of national pride. Therefore, it’s not unreasonable that the Turkish government is so set on honoring such a transformative political figure.
It is readily apparent even on the streets of westernized Istanbul that there are deep underlying tensions in Turkey between the secularists (who are in power in Turkey) and the Islamists (widely in power throughout the rest of the Middle East). Travel outside of Istanbul, and this becomes even more obvious. Therefore, now more than ever, the Turkish government is set on protecting Atatürk’s secular ideals.
Of course, none of this is a legitimate cause to curb free speech. The Turkish block of the entire YouTube site due to the appearance of one video that insults Atatürk is a gross overreaction, stemming from a law that really has no business being on the books in a modern democracy. This pales in comparison, though, to the much more sinister censorship currently occurring in China, and this is where outside powers should be using their influence to push for more openness.