Bad Day at Bayrock

— Trump’s Bayrock Group business partner Tevfik Arif demands takedown of news reports that he was arrested and charged with human trafficking

According to the Lumen Database, which collects and analyses takedown requests of online content, Arif recently sent Turkish court orders to Google and Automattic (WordPress’ parent company) demanding the removal of a number of sites and blogs – including The Huffington Post and The Guardian – that reported about his 2010 arrest aboard the MV Savarona, the presidential yacht of the Republic of Turkey.

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Arif was charged with human trafficking after Turkish police raided the $57 million yacht where he was attending a private party. According to news reports, they found “nine young girls” from Russia and the Ukraine, “a huge amount of contraceptives and a file with escort girls’ pictures and hotel receipts.”

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The charges against Arif were later dropped and court files sealed, although four lesser-known businessmen were convicted.

Arif, a former Soviet commerce official, is best known for his business partnership with Donald Trump. The two were partners on the troubled Trump SoHo hotel in Manhattan, recently the subject of a criminal investigation and a lawsuit; and the doomed Trump International Hotel & Tower in Fort Lauderdale, which was sold in 2012 after the developer defaulted on a $139 million construction loan.

Error 451

WordPress censors critical blog post about Armenian Olympic Committee President and rumoured Sochi crime lord Ruben “Robson” Tatulyan following complaint from Russian state media watchdog Roskomnadzor

This is part three of a series of posts about WordPress, the San Francisco-based blogging platform which earlier this year said that – absent a U.S. court order – it chooses to ignore outside requests to censor content, but now complies with takedown demands from Russian and Turkish authorities.

In October, Russia’s state media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, sent a complaint to WordPress demanding that it censor a critical blog post about Ruben “Robson” Tatulyan, President of the National Olympic Committee of Armenia and rumoured Sochi crime lord.

roskomnadzors-october-31-2016-complaint-to-wordpress-about-ruben-tatulyan

Roskomnadzor’s October 31, 2016 complaint to WordPress (source)

The offending blog post, which Roskomnadzor claims violates Tatulyan’s privacy “rights and freedoms,” describes an incident at Sochi International Airport earlier this year, when Tatulyan and his entourage – driving vehicles carrying Armenian embassy number plates – brazenly violated numerous traffic regulations.

According to Russian news reports, Tatulyan boasted to security staff about supposedly having acquired ambassadorship in Armenia, before speeding away in the wrong lane through the airport’s car park and ramming an automatic barrier.

A video of the incident, as captured on CCTV:

Tatulyan is not listed as holding office at the Armenian embassy in Russia, although several Russian news reports – including the targeted WordPress post – have alluded to his possible involvement in Russia’s criminal underworld.

One popular online publication, Crime Russia (itself the target of multiple takedown requests from Roskomnadzor), even alleges that Tatulyan is “shadow ruler” of all crime syndicates in Sochi, succeeding the notorious Russian mafia boss Aslan Usoyan aka Grandpa Hassan, who was assassinated in 2013.

Roskomnadzor’s complaint to WordPress does not try to refute these claims, instead citing a dubious Russian law restricting the publication of “personal data” in an effort to censor the offending blog post.

roskomnadzors-october-31-2016-complaint-to-wordpress-via-the-lumen-database

According to the Lumen Database, WordPress has partially enforced Roskomnadzor’s complaint (source)

Via my blog last month, WordPress recently changed its policy about how it responds to takedown requests.

Although the blogging platform has built a strong reputation on its principled support for free speech, it now says it complies with censorship demands in order to ensure access to the bulk of WordPress.com for users within authoritarian countries, who would otherwise face more severe punishment from their Internet Service Provider (ISP).

The change in policy goes back to March of last year, when a ban on a single blog post led Turkish ISPs to censor all of WordPress in Turkey.

Via this March 20, 2015 tweet, WordPress initially seemed intent on fighting the block…

wordpress-2015-response-to-turkey-censorship

…reaffirming its free speech bonafides via this January 28, 2016 Automattic entry, in which a spokesperson for WordPress stated that, without a U.S. court order, the company “refused to take action in response to the takedown demands from Turkey.”

Under our legal guidelines, we require a U.S. court order before proceeding with the removal of content from WordPress.com. To this point, we have refused to take action in response to the takedown demands from Turkey. After we receive notice of an order, Turkish ISPs, who are bound to obey the court orders, move to block the sites named in an order, making it unavailable to all visitors from Turkey without any further explanation.

However, last month WordPress admitted to having censored a Turkish political blog after receiving a complaint from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Per this undated Automattic entry, WordPress also recently started implementing blocks on request of Russian authorities, with the stated aim of “protecting all of the other 79 million WordPress.com sites.”

Today, when we receive a takedown demand from RSOC [Roskomnadzor], we review it and will often end up suspending the site in question because of a violation of our Terms of Service (for selling drugs or containing pornography, for example). In cases where the site does not violate our terms, we try to take the most limited and transparent actions available: blocking content so that it is unavailable only in Russia, and blocking only the content specified in the takedown demand (rather than the entire site). We take this action with the goal of protecting all of the other 79 million WordPress.com sites.

It’s possible to find out if WordPress has geo-blocked content in Russia by entering certain URLs – such as the one mentioned in the Roskomnadzor complaint – into a Russian proxy.

If WordPress has blocked the URL in question, you’ll see the following message, a nod to Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451:

unavailable-for-legal-reasons-wordpress

A list of WordPress blogs currently geo-blocked in Russia is available by clicking here.

See also: “Erdoğan Strikes Again,” my November 27, 2016 item re: WordPress censorship of Turkish political blog following court order by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

And: “WordPress Yields to Putin,” my December 3, 2016 item re: WordPress censorship of “Putin-Hitler” mock photo on request of Russian state media watchdog Roskomnadzor.

Erdoğan Strikes Again

WordPress geo-blocks Turkish political blog featuring cartoons by internationally renowned satirical cartoonists following court order from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Last month, İstanbul lawyer Ahmet Özel filed a complaint with WordPress on behalf of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The complaint, in the form of a court order, requested that WordPress restrict access to a Turkish blog page featuring satirical cartoons depicting Erdoğan as a tyrannical dictator, claiming they constitute “an attack on personality rights” and do not “reflect reality.”

lumen-database-erdogan-court-order

Erdoğan’s October 9, 2016 complaint, via the Lumen Database

Earlier this year, WordPress (via transparency.automattic.com) stated that – absent a U.S. court order – it refuses to take action in response to takedown demands from Turkey.

However, it appears that the offending blog page is currently geo-blocked in Turkey, and when you enter the URL¹ into a Turkish proxy, you get this message…

unavailable-for-legal-reasons

…which links to an official WordPress page on how to bypass the block.

When I asked WordPress if it had taken action against the Turkish blog, I received the following response from Community Guardian Janet J:

From: Janet J ­ WordPress.com <tosreports@wordpress.com>
To: **** <****@aol.com>
Subject: [#2927379]: [automattic] Geo­blocking
Date: Mon, 21 Nov 2016 11:11

Hi there Dean,

Yes, that is correct. We are forced to geo-block the specific sites mentioned in the Turkish court orders or face a whole WordPress.com site block in the country. Instead, we direct users to a message explaining why the site is unavailable, and point them to this site:

https://beatcensorship.wordpress.com/

All the best,


Janet J | Community Guardian | WordPress.com

When I then asked about WordPress’ policy of refusing to take action against bloggers, per the above mentioned Automattic statement, this was her response:

From: Janet J ­ WordPress.com <tosreports@wordpress.com>
To: **** <****@aol.com>
Subject: [#2927379]: [automattic] Geo­blocking
Date: Mon, 21 Nov 2016 15:40

Hi there,

Thanks for the follow up.

That blog post was correct at the time of writing, but our process has since changed, in order to find the best possible compromise to allow us to continue to ensure access to the bulk of WordPress.com for users in Turkey. Rather than have sites blocked by ISPs with no explanation, we have decided to implement blocks ourselves so that we can provide alternative messaging, and an explanation for visitors to the sites in question.

There is no good solution to the issue of political censorship, and we are constantly reviewing the processes to find ways to combat it, including taking legal action in Turkey where appropriate. Going forward, we’ll look into making the current process clearer in our next transparency report.

All the best,


Janet J | Community Guardian | WordPress.com

I also spoke with Jaume Capdevila aka KAP, an award-winning Spanish cartoonist whose 2013 cartoon of Erdoğan features prominently on the censored blog.

KAP, Cagle Cartoons (2013)

“[Freedom of expression] is a basic right of people, it is a basic freedom,” said Capdevila. “The debate of ideas is fundamental, and it enriches all. Censorship is the first step towards ignorance and fear.”

He went on to explain how satire erodes the image of power.”

To laugh means to lose fear, and fear is what keeps the totalitarians in power. It is therefore natural to react against cartoons, against journalists, and against the Internet, which is a means by which the population can inform and organise to recover lost democracy.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Capdevila said he felt honoured to know his cartoon had succeeded in riling the Turkish despot, whom he described as “an authoritarian politician” seeking to maintain power through fear and repression.

“As a cartoonist it is an honour to know that an intolerant prohibits one of your drawings, of course! In recent years, the satirical cartoonist is a trade with more risk… we are not heroes and do not want to be, but things like this give some sense to our trade.”

He added: “One of the best things in our job is to know that there was someone in Turkey who thought that this drawing could be useful for his struggle for freedom and used it on his blog, or wherever. The ultimate meaning of satirical drawings is to reach the maximum of people and awaken in them something…”

Spanish cartoonist Jaume Capdevila aka KAP

The censored blog also features work by renowned American cartoonist Daryl Cagle, and Patrick Chappatte, editorial cartoonist for The New York Times.

In Cagle’s cartoon, the Turkish leader brazenly denies that his pants are on fire (literally), labelling his accusers “drunkard, extremist Twitterheads.”

Daryl Cagle, Cagle Cartoons (2013)

In Chappatte’s cartoon, Erdoğan is building a huge statue of himself in Taksim Square as an “urban development project,” while angry protesters are gathered outside.

Patrick Chappatte, Cagle Cartoons (2013)

Turkey has a long and colourful history of trying to censor cartoonists.

Last year, Bahadır Baruter and Özer Aydoğan, from the Turkish satirical magazine Penguen, were sentenced to 11 months and 20 days in prison after having published a cartoon satirising Erdoğan’s heavy-handed treatment of journalists (the sentence was subsequently reduced to a fine of 7,000 Liras – equalling 1,600 Pounds – each).

In August, top Turkish cartoonist Dogan Güzel spent two days in detention following a raid on İstanbul-based newspaper Özgür Gündem (Turkish for “Free Agenda”).

Earlier this month, another top Turkish cartoonist, Musa Kart, was arrested as part of a roundup of journalists from the country’s opposition newspaper, Cumhuriyet.


¹Link: https://yuksekstrateji.wordpress.com/2013/11/16/mizah-yabanci-basinda-cikan-recep-tayyip-erdogan-karikaturleri/

See also: “Erdoğan: Turkey’s Trump?”, my November 29, 2016 item re: Harvard Law Prof. Laurence Tribe’s response to the above blog post.