Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a stinging broadside on Friday against the country’s highest court for overturning a ban on Twitter, refuelling controversy over his social media crackdown.
As he spoke, a lower court in the capital Ankara defied the government by ruling against another, ongoing social media ban, on the video-sharing site YouTube.
Erdogan’s government was Thursday forced to unblock the micro-blogging service Twitter, which has been used to spread a torrent of damaging online leaks alleging corruption in the premier’s inner circle.
The prime minister made clear he was unhappy about having to comply with the Constitutional Court, which had found the March 20 ban breached the right to free speech, and the rulings of which can’t be appealed.
“We are of course bound by the Constitutional Court verdict, but I don’t have to respect it,” Erdogan defiantly told a press conference. “I don’t respect this ruling.”
Erdogan said “the Constitutional Court should have rejected” the application to lift the Twitter block brought by an opposition lawmaker and two academics.
“All our national, moral values have been put aside,” he said about the spate of anonymously posted recordings. “Insults to a country’s prime minister and ministers are all around.”
The Internet crackdown has sparked protests from Turkey’s Nato allies and human rights groups, which have deplored it as curbing the right to free expression – a notion Erdogan dismissed.
“This is a commercial company which has a product,” he said of the San Francisco-based service. “It is not only Twitter. YouTube and Facebook are also commercial companies. It is everyone’s free will whether or not to buy their product. This has nothing to do with freedoms.”
The Ankara court meanwhile ruled against a March 27 ban on YouTube, which came after the site was used to spread audio recordings of security talks on Syria involving top government, military and spy officials.
The government has challenged such district-level court decisions in the past.
In the leaked recording on Syria, voices could be heard weighing possible military action inside the neighbouring war-torn country.
The Turkish foreign ministry is now moving to ban all cellphones inside its Ankara premises, to prevent further “espionage”, the Hurriyet daily reported.
Erdogan’s government has been rattled by the twin crises of mass street protests since last June and, since December, the torrent of online leaks.
The months of crises have polarised Turkish society and widened a gulf between a secular and pro-Western middle class and the mostly conservative Muslim and working class supporters of Erdogan.
While Erdogan has been accused of an increasingly authoritarian ruling style, he is admired by millions of Turks for driving a decade of economic growth and raising Turkey’s status as an emerging global player.
Despite the allegations, Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) scored sweeping wins in crucial local polls last Sunday which were seen as a referendum on Erdogan’s 11-year-rule.
Presidential election looms
Emboldened by the results, Erdogan is now seen to consider either a run for the presidency in the country’s first direct elections for the head of state in August, or to change AKP rules to allow him a fourth term as premier.
Erdogan signalled Friday he may favour a presidential run when he said he supported the party’s three-term limit on the prime ministership, but he added that an AKP congress would make a decision on that.
“I am in favour of the three-term rule,” he said, also ruling out calling early general elections which are now scheduled for next year.
Incumbent President Abdullah Gul, with the image of a moderate compared to Erdogan’s often abrasive style, meanwhile praised the Twitter court ruling, saying “to me, it’s not a surprise”.
Gul had tweeted despite the ban, which had also been widely circumvented by many of Turkey’s almost 12 million Twitter users, who have instead accessed the site via text message or by adjusting their Internet settings.
“The rule of law has been confirmed in this country after all,” Gul said while on a visit to Kuwait. “They make decisions based on universal law. This increases trust in the court. I am very proud.”
The president has on several occasions taken an opposite stance to the prime minister, and some political commentators see a growing rift between the two, who are potential rivals for power.
But others speculate the duo at the top of Turkish politics could survive by simply aiming to switch posts.