Arrests in Turkey Show War on Terror Ambiguity

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Following an incident in May when U.S. Special Forces were photographed near Raqqa, Syria, wearing patches representing what is considered a terrorist group by Turkey – and, technically, by the U.S. as well – a representative of the international press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders has been arrested by Turkish authorities on “terrorist propaganda” charges.

The representative of Reporters Without Borders (a.k.a. Reporters Sans Frontières or RSF) Erol Onderoglu, along with journalist Ahmet Nesin and activist and academic Sebnem Korur Fincanci, has reportedly been arrested for participating in May in a solidarity campaign with pro-Kurdish newspaper Ozgur Gundem. Turkey says the paper is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, and at least one U.S. official has also described it as pro-PKK.

In response to the May incident, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook at first said only that “Special Operations Forces, when they operate in certain areas, do what they can to blend in with the community to enhance their own protection, their own security,” and refused to comment specifically on the photos.

Following an angry denunciation by the Turkish foreign minister, however, (he suggested U.S. soldiers might as well be wearing ISIS or al-Qaeda logos) American officials changed their tune about special operators wearing patches representing the Kurdish People’s Defense Forces or YPG.

“Wearing those YPG patches was unauthorized and it was inappropriate and corrective action has been taken, and we have communicated as much to our military partners and our military allies in the region,” U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad Col. Steve Warren reportedly said.

Meanwhile, about a hundred supporters of the three more recently arrested in connection with the Ozgur Gundem newspaper reportedly rallied in front of an Istanbul courthouse Monday, and RSF was quick to denounce the arrests.

“This is another dark day for media freedom in Turkey,” Johann Bihr, head of RSF’s eastern Europe and central Asia desk, reportedly said. The diplomatic uproar neatly illustrates, however, the complicated and ambiguous nature of the U.S. and international role in the region. And it highlights problems that have long-term implications for U.S. policy, both foreign and domestic.

I recently wrote about Microsoft’s announcement last month that it was changing its terms of use “which already prohibit hate speech and advocacy of violence against others – to specifically prohibit the posting of terrorist content on our hosted consumer services.”

While acknowledging that “no universally accepted definition of terrorist content” exists, Microsoft has nonetheless funded a project by Professor Hany Farid of Dartmouth to develop a recently unveiled algorithm aimed at removing “extremist” content from social media. The algorithm has apparently not received the warmest welcome among Silicon Valley’s biggest social media companies, however, which reportedly view Farid’s business partner Mark Wallace “with intense suspicion.”

In a conference call with tech companies to discuss Farid and Wallace’s social media censorship algorithm proposal, Wallace reportedly described the well-known saying that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” as “insipid.”

It doesn’t seem difficult to see why tech companies, or anyone else for that matter, should be wary of someone who so lightly dismisses taking a more nuanced view of issues surrounding the censorship of “extremist speech” or “terrorist content.”

The reasons should be self-evident, but the fact that U.S. Special Forces have, within the past month, been photographed wearing the insignia of a U.S.-designated terrorist group, and that an RSF representative has been charged with “terrorist propaganda” in Turkey, a country with which the U.S. currently has a strained relationship but remains allied, clearly demonstrates the problem.

The presently unfolding Ozgur Gundem situation could very well become a larger scale diplomatic mess than the YPG patches did. In any case, the two incidents together, taken in context of some of the solutions presently being proposed for fighting terrorism, clearly exemplify the dangers of oversimplifying the “War on Terror.”

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