A recent ground-breaking decision by a newly set-up, semi-independent, quasi-judicial Facebook Oversight Board to overturn a Facebook ban on a picture of imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, arguably shows that Facebook are making some slow progress in grappling with the issues in relation to freedom of expression and discussing the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state. It is a decision that could have important implications for the discourse surrounding the prison conditions of Abdullah Öcalan and political prisoners in Turkey.
For many years, Kurdish users of Facebook and Instagram and their friends have been subjected to a disproportionately high level of censorship on the Kurdish issue that has become infamous among the Kurdish community, as content innocuous as pictures of Kurdish people dancing or images of the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan have been removed and their users banned for up to 90 days. Many Kurds have had their accounts removed and banned from the platform all together.
The Kurdish community worldwide has a general perception that Facebook politically represses Kurdish content on its platform and seemingly does this on behalf of the Turkish state to ensure continued access to the Turkish social media market, one of the biggest in the world. However, Facebook refutes this saying that they have a legal obligation to comply with laws and Turkish government court judgements regarding ‘promotion or support of a terrorist organisation’ referring to the PKK which has been in an armed conflict with the Turkish state since 15 August 1984.
The PKK is currently labelled as a ‘proscribed organisation’ according to the US and EU, however, a recent decision by Belgium’s highest court ruled that the PKK is not a terrorist organisation but represents one side of a conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK.
Thereby illustrating the highly political nature of some states friendly to Turkey in labelling the PKK as a ‘terrorist’ organisation.
Hence the debate, PKK – ‘terrorists’ or Freedom Fighters, is an important ongoing debate within society especially in regard to how to achieve a peaceful political settlement to this long running conflict.
In 2013 a delegation of Kurdish academics and pro-Kurdish rights activists visited Facebook and voiced concerns that Facebook’s actions violated basic freedom of expression principles and essentially that it shut down conversations about any possible peaceful solutions to the conflict, and they called on Facebook to take steps to improve the situation.
In November 2018 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg eventually approved a quas-judicial and semi-independent board to look at such controversial issues in relation to content on Facebook. This body is called the Oversight Board. The findings and recommendations of the board are binding on Facebook.
The board is not designed to be a simple extension of Facebook’s existing content review process. Rather, it will review a selected number of highly emblematic cases and determine if decisions were made in accordance with Facebook’s stated values and policies.
The Oversight Board began it’s work at the beginning of this year and very soon after accepted an appeal against the banning of an Instagram post and picture of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan for scrutiny. Clearly, an important development that may well have consequences for the future.
On 25th January 2021, an Instagram user in the United States posted a picture of Abdullah Öcalan with the words, “Y’all ready for this conversation?” In a caption, the user wrote that it was time to talk about ending Öcalan’s isolation on Imrali Prison Island where he has been held in isolation since 14th Feb 1999. The user encouraged readers to engage in a conversation about Öcalan’s imprisonment and the inhumane nature of his solidarity confinement. The post was banned and removed.
The user appealed the decision but was again told that he had violated Facebook’s rules on support of dangerous organisations and support of Öcalan and the PKK.
Then, the user appealed directly to the Oversight Board. This was the first time a Kurdish related case had been referred to the new board. The board accepted the case for review.
On the 23rd of April 2021, the original Öcalan content was restored to the user’s Instagram account after the Oversight Board was told by Facebook that an internal guidance policy on ‘Dangerous Individuals and Organisations’ was ‘inadvertently not transferred’ to a new review system in 2018. The guidance, for content review moderators, developed in 2017 partly in response to concern about the conditions of Öcalan’s imprisonment, allows for discussion on the conditions of confinement for individuals designated as dangerous.
As a result of the investigation by the board it was found that this critical piece of Facebook internal guidance for content reviewers had been ‘missing’ from the internal guidance policy for three years and that many cases were very probably subjected to wrongful punishments.
The decision by the Oversight Board will have consequences to future decisions by Facebook in regards to content moderation, and the board have set out in a policy advisory statement their clear findings and recommendations to Facebook in relation to this case. These findings and recommendations are binding on the company.
What is now clear and accepted, is that it is acceptable to discuss the imprisonment conditions of Abdullah Öcalan and other political prisoners on Facebook’s platforms and that Facebook are going some way to navigate the concerns about freedom of expression and Turkey’s and the US and EU’s continued labelling of the PKK as a ‘terrorist’ organisation.
For Facebook and Instagram users, the message is now that you can post and discuss about the prison conditions of Abdullah Öcalan and other political prisoners but you must keep it in the framework of human rights and the arrative of seeking a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey and be careful not to stray over into looking like you are actively ‘promoting or showing support’ for the PKK which will still, for now at least, be against Facebook’s ‘Community standards’ and will land you in Facebook jail.
So, some progress, but clearly still a long way to go.
If you have appealed to Facebook against a case that you feel was unfairly banned and you lost your appeal with Facebook you can now appeal your case to the Facebook Oversight Board.