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Online media freedom threatened in Turkey

Online media freedom threatened in Turkey

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Facing ongoing popular discontent since anti-government rallies in June 2013, Istanbul’s Taksim Square was once again the site of violent clashes with riot police over the weekend of 8-9 February, as demonstrators rallied against the latest development in a string of government moves testing media freedom.

Jessica White

Following a heated debate on 5 February, Turkey’s parliament voted into law a series of measures introduced by ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) that will tighten government control over the Internet. Pressure is now on Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, who has two weeks to approve or veto the legislation.

Amendments to Law No. 5651 will allow the Telecommunications Directorate (TIB), a body controlled by the government, to block websites that “violate individuals’ privacy” or are “discriminatory or insulting”, without the need to seek a court order. The bill also includes a measure that allows for the recording of Internet users’ browsing histories and the storage of this information for up to two years. The bill does not specify what data must be handed over or what use would be made of it. 

Qualified as a “draconian bill”, the measures sparked widespread condemnation from civil rights groups and opposition parties in a country where the Internet is increasingly becoming a contested space. Despite disapproval from Turkey’s three main opposition parties, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan maintains the bill is vital for defending privacy, dismissing criticism that it will undermine freedom of speech.

Both the European Union and the Council of Europe have urged for the law to be withdrawn.

“President Gül should veto these new measures to ensure Turkey does not violate its obligations to respect the right to access to information, freedom of expression, and privacy rights” declared Emma Sinclair Webb, senior Turkey researcher at the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. She further points to the lack of consultation and insufficient expert input in rushing the bill through parliament.

In a detailed briefing, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) raises particular concerns about providing unfettered discretion to the administration to block and filter online content. The amendments “have the potential to significantly impact free expression, investigative journalism, the protection of journalists’ sources, political discourse and access to information over the Internet.”

Under Prime Minister Erdoğan’s leadership, Turkey has already earned an unfavourable reputation for employing heavy-handed measures to intimidate the news media and control Internet content. Blocking orders under strict Internet laws introduced in 2007 were ruled in breach of the right to freedom of expression by the European Court of Human Rights. More than 40,000 sites – including YouTube and Wordpress – have been blocked so far, according to Turkey's, which tracks access restrictions. In December, Google released data showing that Turkey topped the Internet giant’s content removal request list.

Anti-government protests in June 2013, commonly known as the Gezi Park protests, exacerbated the crackdown on Internet media outlets in retaliation for independent or pro-opposition coverage. Calling social media “the worst menace to society”, Prime Minister Erdoğan was strongly criticised for his tough response to the unrest. At least 22 journalists were fired and another 37 were forced to quit in connection with the Gezi protests, according to the Turkish Union of Journalists.

The timing of this new bill is ever more controversial as an ongoing corruption scandal engulfs the government and threatens Erdoğan’s own position. Critics point to a defensive government that is seeking to increase its power to silence and limit politically damaging material. In mid-December, Istanbul prosecutors arrested dozens of people including businessmen close to the government and three cabinet ministers’ sons. In response, the government purged hundreds of police officers and sought tighter control over the courts. It also pursued news media, barring reporters from police departments and some journalists from traveling overseas with Mr. Erdoğan.

As the longest-standing candidate for membership of the European Union, this new Internet law is a worrying sign of a country backtracking on historical democratic efforts, a trend on which the EU has already voiced its concerns. On Twitter, European Parliament President Martin Schulz called the legislation a step back in an “already suffocating environment for media freedom.”

The country’s international commitments to media freedom are further undermined by the regular imprisonment of journalists: for the second consecutive year, Turkey topped the list of journalists in jail. In December 2013, the Executive Committee of WAN-IFRA published a resolution calling on the Turkish government to stop jailing journalists and to guarantee freedom of the press. This environment is promoting a culture of self-censorship and seriously threatens the ability of journalists to carry out their work without hindrance, intimidation, or interference from the state.

These worrying trends only add to growing concerns about the erosion of media freedoms worldwide, in particular over the Internet. It is of no surprise that issues of surveillance, restrictive Internet legislation, and cyber-attacks landed “cyberspace” on the list of places trending in the wrong direction, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ most recent Risk List: “The Internet revolutionised the practice of journalism largely by the absence of government control, but its decentralised nature was in jeopardy as many countries stepped up efforts to monitor or disrupt the free flow of digital information.”


Andrew Heslop's picture

Andrew Heslop


2014-02-14 17:09

In countless countries, journalists, editors and publishers are physically attacked, imprisoned, censored, suspended or harassed for their work. WAN-IFRA is committed to defending freedom of expression by promoting a free and independent press around the world. Read more ...