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Turkey

Erdogan loses own voice after seeking to silence his online critics

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has sought to muzzle his critics by restricting YouTube and Twitter access in Turkey, has cancelled election rally speeches after losing his voice.

Erdogan's office said on Friday that the prime minister would not attend planned election rallies on Friday in order to rest his voice. The Turkish leader was noticeably hoarse at his most recent stop on the local election campaign trail on Thursday.

Turkey is some 48 hours away from local elections considered a tough test for Erdogan's ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party). The AKP has struggled in particular with a corruption scandal and public dissatisfaction over the handling of last year's major protests in Istanbul. Most recently, these problems have prompted the government in Ankara to try to restrict access to social media site Twitter, and then to YouTube.

Turkey gears up for local polls

Erdogan said at his last campaign rally on Thursday he had ordered the YouTube shutdown after a bugged recording of a government meeting discussing Syria was posted online. In the recording, government officials can be heard discussing plans to establish a cause for military intervention in neighboring Syria. The Turkish authorities have said that while the recording is authentic, key parts of it were doctored before the leak.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in a national TV interview that the posting of the video constituted "a clear attack against national security," revealing the government shut down the Google-owned site after requesting that the company block the account in question.

Germany, PEN authors criticize censorship

A spokesman for the German foreign ministry and Chancellor Angela Merkel's deputy spokeswoman on Friday both criticized Turkey's YouTube restriction. The foreign ministry called the response "inappropriate," while Merkel's office reiterated the value Germany and the EU places on freedom of speech. Turkey has been an official candidate country for EU membership for more than a decade, but has so far concluded just one of more than 30 "chapters" that must be closed before it can seek to join the bloc.

The PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists) writers' association on Friday published an open letter to the Turkish government calling for the bans on Twitter and YouTube to be lifted. Signatories included Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Günther Wallraff and three Nobel laureates - Günther Grass, Elfriede Jelinek, and Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.

The authors wrote that the recent Internet restrictions "constitute an unacceptable infringement on the right to freedom of expression," something they described earlier in the letter as "indispensable" to a democracy.

Roughly 40 percent of Turkish citizens, around 30 million people, have Internet access - close to 12 million of them are active on the Twitter social networking site. Twitter was first banned by Erdogan's AKP after it became a popular vehicle to spread links to audio seeming to incriminate the prime minister and his son in the corruption scandal.

The attempted restrictions have had only nominal success, as many of Turkey's more tech-savvy Internet users find ways to partially or completely circumvent the bans. The number of 'Tweets' sent from Turkey increased by around one-third in the three days immediately after the ban's imposition.

Erdogan has sought to portray both the YouTube leak and the corruption allegations against his government as the handiwork of supporters of Fethullah Gulen. The influential Muslim cleric, now living in self-imposed exile in the US, was once a close ally of Erdogan's.

Turkey previously banned access to YouTube for two years - ending in 2010 - because of material deemed insulting to the country's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

An Ankara court on Wednesday overturned the Twitter ban, calling it a limitation on free speech. However, full service is yet to be restored, and Turkey's TIB telecommunications regulator can appeal within 30 days of the verdict. Prior to the court ruling, Turkish President Abdullah Gul had spoken out against the ban - in a series of messages on Twitter.

msh/ph (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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