You no longer have to pen a controversial political manifesto railing against the powers that be to find yourself behind bars. In certain autocratic countries, and even some democracies, now all it takes is an “insulting” tweet about the government — expressed in under 140 characters, of course.
A columnist in Turkey learned this lesson the hard way when he was sentenced to 10 months in prison on Monday for an offensive tweet he claims was the result of a typo. Önder Aytaç, a journalist with the opposition newspaper Taraf, claims he accidentally added a ‘k’ to the end of the Turkish word for “my chief” in a tweet about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s role in closing down private schools, turning the word into the Turkish equivalent of “screw you.”
According to a Turkish defamation law that makes it a crime to insult “public officials during the course of their job,” the Prime Minister pressed charges and won. In March, Turkey blocked Twitter altogether out of fear of its potential as a platform for dissent. The highest court in Turkey on Thursday declared that blocking Twitter entirely was unconstitutional, but the laws that sent Aytaç to jail remain on the books.
Last Saturday, another Twitter dissident, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights Nabeel Rajab, was released after spending two years in prison in Bahrain. The Gulf country receives U.S. military and financial support despite regularly silencing pro-democracy protesters like Rajab.
While Rajab was officially charged with the vague crime of “disturbing public order,” his use of Twitter to express his political sentiments led to a three month jail sentence in 2012 and contributed to the case that put him behind bars for two years. Just two weeks ago, six more activists received one year sentences for tweeting comments deemed “insulting to the king.” Perhaps the most draconian was a Bahrain court’s sentencing of 17-year-old high school student Ali al-Shofa to a year in jail in 2012.
Other Gulf states have similarly convicted Twitter users for petty offenses. Kuwait has convicted at least eight people for posting tweets “offensive” to Kuwait’s emir over the past two year, including dishing out a five year prison sentence followed by permanent exile to a 30 year old activist Abdullah Fairouz Abdullah Abd al-Kareem in January. In the United Arab Emirates, journalist Abdullah Al-Hadidi is serving 10 months in jail for criticizing a trial against opponents of the regime.
The government crack down on tweets isn’t limited to just Turkey and the Middle East. In Japan, 47-year old single mother and journalist Mari Takenouchi is facing one month of jail time after criticizing a nuclear lobbyist in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Korean photographer Park Jung-geun received a 10-month term for retweeting content posted by an account run by the North Korean government. And last year, the conservative government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy passed a new law that has made organizing non-state approved demonstrations through social media punishable with heavy fines and jail time.
“Our position on freedom of expression carries with it a mandate to protect our users’ right to speak freely,” according to a company blog post by Twitter written in 2011. Apparently, however, this mandate does not extend to countries where governments flinch at the slightest criticism.
An earlier version of this article originally misstated Takenouchi’s age and the date of the Fukushima disaster. These issues have since been corrected.