Online and Off, Information Control Persists in Turkey

Demonstrators at Gezi Park. Photo by Nevit Dilmen. (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

Demonstrators at Gezi Park. Photo by Nevit Dilmen. (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

Demonstrators in Turkey have occupied Istanbul’s Taksim Square since last May, in a movement that began as an effort to protect a city park, but has evolved into a larger mobilization against the ruling party’s increasingly autocratic stance.

Prime Minister Erdogan and the ruling AKP party have used many tools to silence voices of the opposition. On June 15, police began using tear gas and water cannons to clear out the large encampment in the park. But this effort also has stretched beyond episodes of physical violence and police brutality into the digital world, where information control and media intimidation are on the rise.

Since the protests began, dozens of Turkish social media users have been detained on charges ranging from inciting demonstrations, to spreading propaganda and false information, to insulting government officials. Dozens more Twitter users were reportedly arrested for posting images of police brutality, though the legal pretense for these arrests is unclear. A recent ruling in an Ankara court ordered 22 demonstrators detained on terrorism-related charges.

Prime Minister Erdogan made his view of social media known when he described social media as “the worst menace to society” at a June press conference. It is worth noting that Erdogan himself is said to maintain a Twitter account with over 3 million followers and 2,000 tweets (some Turks question whether the unverified account is really him, or an unofficial supporter.) While the Turkish government has had limited, if any, involvement in tampering with social media access thus far, government officials appear eager to take further action.

Roots in traditional media

Although current circumstances appear to be testing the limits of Turkey’s information policy framework, the country has a long history of restrictive media policy and practice. In 2013, Turkey ranked 154 out of 166 on the Reporters Without Borders’ Annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index, due in part to the fact that since 1992 18 journalists have been murdered there, 14 with impunity. In responding to protest coverage, authorities have fined, detained and even beaten members of the press. Institutional censorship has also been prevalent: When clashes between protesters and police escalated, activists noted that CNN Turk aired a documentary on penguins while CNN International ran live coverage of the events in Taksim Square.

Dubbed the “the world’s biggest prison for journalists” by Reporters Without Borders, Turkey has been particularly aggressive in arresting Kurdish journalists under Turkey’s anti-terrorism law known as Terörle Mücadele Yasası.

Controlling digital expression

As of 2012, 45% of Turkey’s population had regular access to the Internet. The country’s leading ISP, Türk Telekom (TT), formerly a government-controlled monopoly, was privatized in 2005 but retained a 95% percent market share in 2007. Türk Telekom also controls the country’s only commercial backbone.

Internet Law No. 5651, passed in 2007, prohibits online content in eight categories including prostituion, sexual abuse of children, facilitation of the abuse of drugs, and crimes against (or insults to) Atatürk. The law authorizes the Turkish Supreme Council for Telecommunications and IT (TIB) to block a website when it has “adequate suspicion” that the site hosts illegal content. In 2011, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights reported that 80% of online content blocked in Turkey was due to decisions made by the TIB, with the remaining 20% being blocked as the result of orders by Turkey’s traditional court system. In 2009 alone, nearly 200 court decisions found TIB decisions to block websites unjustifiable because they fell outside the scope of Law 5651. The law also has been criticized for authorizing takedowns of entire sites when only a small portion of their content stands in violation of the law.

Between 2008 and 2010, YouTube was blocked in its entirety under Law 5651 because of specific videos that fell into the category of “crimes against Atatürk”. During this period, YouTube continued to be the 10th most visited site in Turkey, with users accessing the site through proxies. The ban was eventually lifted when YouTube removed the videos in question and came under compliance with Turkish law. Sites likes Blogspot, Metacafe, Wix and others have gone through similar ordeals in Turkey in recent years. An estimated 31,000 websites are blocked in the country.

In December 2012, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that Turkey had violated their citizen’s right to free expression by blocking Google Sites. While Turkey justified the ban based on Sites’ hosting of websites that violated Law 5651, the ECHR found that Turkish law did not allow for “wholesale blocking of access” to a hosting provider like Google Sites. Furthermore, Google Sites had not been informed that it was hosting “illegal” content.

In 2011, Turkey proposed a mandatory online filtering system described as an effort to protect minors and families. This new system, dubbed Güvenli İnternet, or Secure Internet, would block any website that contained keywords from a list of 138 terms deemed inappropriate by telecom authority BTK. The plan was met with public backlash and protests causing the government to re-evaluate the system and eventually offer it as an opt-in service. While only 22,000 of Turkey’s 11 million Internet users have so far opted for the system, opponents of Güvenli İnternet decry it as a form of censorship, disguised as an effort to protect children and families from “objectionable content”.

New policies could further restrict social networks

As the protests continue, the Turkish government is working to use legal tools already at its disposal to increase control over social network activity. Transportation and Communications Minister Binali Yildirim has called on Twitter to establish a representative office within the country. Legally, this could give the Turkish government greater ability to obtain user data from the company. But these requests have not received a warm response from Twitter, which has developed a reputation for protecting user data in the face of government requests. While Twitter has “turned down” requests from the Turkish government for user data and general cooperation, Minister Yildirim stated that Facebook had responded “positively”. Shortly thereafter, Facebook published a “Fact Check” post that denied cooperation with Turkish officials.

Turkey’s Interior Minister Muammer Güler told journalists that “the issue [of social media] needs a separate regulation” and Deputy Prime Minister Bozdag stated that the government had no intention of placing an outright ban on social media, but indicated a desire to outlaw “fake” social media accounts. Sources have confirmed that the Justice Ministry is conducting research and drafting legislation on the issue.

New media expert Ozgur Uckan of Istanbul’s Bilgi University noted that “censoring social media sites presents a technical challenge, and that may be why officials are talking about criminalizing certain content, in an effort to intimidate users and encourage self-censorship.”

While the details of these new laws remain to be seen, it is likely that they will have some impact on journalistic and activist activities in the country, especially in times of rising public protest and dissent.

Greg Epstein is an intern for Global Voices Advocacy and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. This post is also available on EFF's website.

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