Freedom House slams fall in internet freedom in Turkey

By bne IntelliNews December 5, 2014

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Turkey had one of the most significant declines in online freedom worldwide as the authorities blocked social media and gained new powers to monitor online activities, according to Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net survey published on December 4.

Amid a global decline in internet freedom, that has affected 36 of the 65 countries assessed by Freedom House, the worst setbacks were recorded in Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine.

The report was published the day after Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index reported that Turkey was one of the worst backsliders in the index which measures how corrupt a country’s public sector is perceived to be.

As well as the overall decline in freedom, for the fourth year in a row, governments are now becoming more blatant in their quest to control online activity and ever more people are being arrested for their actions online. “Censorship and monitoring practices ... are simultaneously more aggressive and more sophisticated in their targeting of individual users,” says Freedom House’s report.

“In a departure from the past, when most governments preferred a behind-the-scenes approach to internet control, countries are rapidly adopting new laws that legitimize existing repression and effectively criminalise online dissent.”

Turkey, which is rated as “partly free” by Freedom House, fit with this pattern, with a top-level scandal that broke in late 2013 providing the impetus for Ankara to clampdown on online activity. The use of social media to mobilise protesters and spread independent reports about the demonstrations in Gezi Park in May 2013 further alarmed the authorities.

This resulted in the arrests of at least 30 people in connection to their online postings. Several Turks have received heavy sentences, including Osman Garip who was given over a year in jail for defaming Erdogan on Facebook

After recorded conversations between high-ranking officials were leaked on YouTube and SoundCloud, Turkey’s then prime minister, now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan effectively declared war on social media, which he called the “worst menace to society". Erdogan also vowed to “wipe out Twitter” and access to both the micro-blogging site and YouTube were blocked in advance of the March local elections.

On a more positive note, Turkey’s Constitutional Court later ruled that the bans violated freedom of expression and ordered that blocking orders be lifted.

However, Ankara has continued to adopt new legislation in an attempt to legitimise online surveillance and control, alongside 18 other countries, the Freedom House report finds. Turkey’s Law No. 5651 on regulation of the internet was amended in February 2014,  with the changes including greater liability for hosting and access providers, and greater scope to block websites. Two months later, Turkey also amended the law on the National Intelligence Organisation, giving it new powers to obtain information and electronic data from public bodies, private companies, and individuals without a court order.

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