Turkey becomes battleground for online freedom of speech, Freedom House says

By bne IntelliNews August 27, 2014

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Turkey’s government is stepping up its efforts to restrict freedom of speech online, at the same time as the country’s youthful population is turning to social social media and citizen journalism to share news not covered in traditional media, according to a new report from Freedom House. This has resulted in the country becoming a “battleground state” for internet regulation, the Washington-based NGO says.

The report, entitled "The Struggle for Turkey’s Internet", compares Turkey's “mixed orientation” at the level of global Internet governance to its “more one-sided” policies at home.

This contrast has become increasingly stark following the 2013 Gezi Park protests, large-scale corruption investigations and two rounds of elections - presidential and local - in 2014. “In the last 15 months, as traditional punitive offline measures restricting freedom of speech have migrated more and more to the online sphere and new legislation has increased the government’s capacity to regulate content, Turkey has moved to the cutting edge of controlling online space,” the report says.

“For Internet governance, Turkey is a battleground state: a place where a young population, improving technology, and international connections could result in a free Internet the world might envy, or where government tactics might provide a model for shutting down a vibrant online sphere,” writes Freedom House’s Nate Schenkkan.

This is in contrast with Turkey’s more moderate international position. Although Turkey was only one of only three OECD countries to vote in favour of a new set of International Telecommunications Regulations that would increase the state’s role in internet governance, it also formed part of a core group of countries that backed a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council to recognize that the same rights people have offline must be respected online.

Turning point

A turning point in the government’s relationship with the online press and social media users came in December 2013, when Turkish prosecutors arrested several influential figures close to the government during a large-scale corruption investigation. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government fought back by reassigning police and prosecutors around the country, Twitter and YouTube were used to leak recordings of wiretapped conversations that appeared to show top government officials engaged in corruption and manipulation of the media.

The government responded by strengthening its powers to block access to websites, giving Internet Service Providers (ISPs) responsibility for carrying out official orders. In April, the government gave additional powers to the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) to access information, including online data, and enabled prison sentences of up to nine years for acquiring or publishing information about MIT activities.

Since then, government efforts to control online reportage and social media have intensified as 2014 was a double election year.

On March 20, a week before local elections, PM and now President-elect Erdogan launched into a verbal attack on Twitter. “We will tear this Twitter shmitter out at the roots... We will show the strength of the Turkish Republic,” Erdogan said. The government responded quickly, blocking Twitter on March 21 and YouTube on March 27. The Turkish Constitutional Court later ruled that both blocks were unconstitutional, but the rulings were made only after the election.

The government now has an extensive range of tools to shut down online dissent. Criminal and civil defamation laws are used extensively - Erdogan has filed hundreds of defamation suits. Law No. 5651, which was adopted in 2007, has been used to block tens of thousands of websites.

In addition to these tools, the government also uses its close relationships with media owners to exert control over the press. For example, Türk Telekom, which is 30% state owned, holds a monopoly in internet infrastructure and broadband services.

Finger in dike

But Ankara has been unable to stem the tide of online dissent. Despite relatively low broadband penetration, Turks have embraced both the internet and social media. Around half the country’s 77m population are internet users, of which around 90% are on Facebook and over 70% on Twitter.

According to the Freedom House report, Turkey is “witnessing an explosion in social media, ranking the fourth largest in global use of Facebook and eighth largest for Twitter”. In 2012-13 the number of tweets sent daily was up 370%, with Turks now sending around 8m tweets every day. Among 15-24 year olds, the internet is almost as popular as television as a source of news.

The May-June 2013 Gezi Park protests were a tipping point for Twitter, which became a “widely accepted source of news” for the Turkish public. According to the report, the total number of tweets sent each day more than doubled from around 10m to 15.2m on May 31, 2013. A survey by KONDA Research and Consultancy found that 69% of Gezi Park protesters first heard about the events from social media.

During the Gezi Park protests in June 2013, “protesters turned to online platforms, especially Twitter, Facebook, and live-streaming services like Ustream, to publicize events that the traditional media ignored,” the report says. “For a brief period, Turkey was an antidote to pessimism about the Internet and political activism after the painful descent of the Arab Spring into counter- revolution and civil war.” Even after police broke the protests, “online media outlets continued to flourish in Turkey through 2013 and 2014”.

“The popularity of social media in Turkey and during the Gezi Park protests is due in part to the failures of the traditional Turkish media,” Freedom House says. This saw the penguin become an ironic symbol for protesters in Turkey after cable news channels broadcast penguin documentaries and cooking shows instead of covering the Gezi protests. The lack of television coverage forced Turkish citizens to look for online coverage of the events.

Turkey now has a vibrant citizen journalism sector, counterbalancing the traditional media. This includes sites like 140journos, launched by 21-year-old college student Engin Önder in frustration over the lack of coverage of a December 2011 airstrike on the Turkey-Iraq border.

No let-up

Erdogan, who won Turkey’s August 10 presidential election, has shown no signs of softening his stance. In the run-up to the elections his government initiated new legislation to further restrict the online media. This includes amendments to the Press Law, currently at the committee stage in parliament, that would make  online news sites subject to the same regulations as the print media. Erdogan has also proposed transferring the powers of the country’s telecoms regulator (TIB) to the MİT.

However, Freedom House points out that Ankara is unlikely to be able to consolidate control over the Internet to the same degree as countries such as Russia and Azerbaijan thanks to the strength of institutions like the Constitutional Court.

Meanwhile, the use of both the internet and social media are still going strong, as is online dissent. “These factors ... will create a drag on authoritarian consolidation and preserve space in which free and independent voices in traditional media and online continue to develop and thrive,” the report says. “These voices are the ones that can help preserve the liberalism and diversity that have gathered strength in Turkey over the last 20 years.”

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