Digital rights and freedoms in Turkey: Getting worse day by day

Author: Melike Pala

Turkey is by far the country whose official authorities have requested the most content removal and account blocking from Twitter. As of the end of 2020, 467.011 websites were blocked by court decision. While the average of content removal was around 76 percent in 2019, this rate increased to 81 percent in 2020. 

A crackdown on digital rights and freedoms?

While digital rights and freedoms were in this state, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's idea that a social media law would be made to prevent fake news and false information on social media found great support from the government and authorities. It is highly likely that a social media law will be made when the parliament is reopened in Turkey. There is concern that the new law will censor independent digital media and social media users that are already under pressure, rather than combating disinformation.

We talked to Gürkan Özturan, Media Freedom Rapid Response Coordinator at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom and digital rights & freedoms activist, about digital rights and freedoms in Turkey and what the expected social media law could mean. Özturan says that “no matter how repressed it is, the truth finds a way at some point and spreads to the society”.

Before asking about the current state of rights and liberties in Turkey, I would like to ask about the past. Putting aside the debates that have increased in recent years, how would you evaluate Turkey's digital rights and liberties situation in general? Is there any event that you see as breaking point?

The issues of digital rights and liberties, which have been on Turkey's agenda in an increasing frequency since 2007, are not actually at a point independent from the history of this country. The blocking and suppression methods developed against the more comprehensive publishing activities that started with the arrival of the printing press in the Ottoman Empire are also used today, with almost minor changes, this time against the internet. When a legal regulation is made, immediately afterwards, the institutions created by this regulation demand the expansion of their powers, or the government directly expands the authorities of these institutions and increases its control over the areas of freedom.

There is an important breaking point that I would like to point out for Turkey in recent years. Before the Gezi Park Protests, which took place with widespread participation in 2013, social media had not yet reached a large segment of the society. It was only with the Gezi Park Protests that the social media became a “digital public space” where millions of users joined the discussion and expressed their opinions openly, validating the platforms. The fact that the government that had completely controlled the social discourse before this point, did not attach much importance to digital platforms either. In fact, it still has not been completely brought under control over the years. In the statements of the representatives of the ruling AK Party, we can see this clearly that they see it as a problem that social media cannot be silenced with mergers and financial take over as it did with the conventional mainstream media.

The government, which started by declaring social media "the biggest menace that has ever happened to societies" at the time of the Gezi Park Protests, then announced that surveillance and profiling activities would be initiated first, and then began to enact restrictive measures. As of 2014, the pressure on digital channels was increasing and even competing with bad examples in the world, the country's digital rights and liberties scores started to fill with negative points, just like in other areas of rights and liberties areas. When we look at digital rights and liberties today, it is unfortunately very easy to see that freedom and rights online or offline are under a lot of pressure. According to the Freedom on the Net Report published annually by Freedom House, Turkey has been in a systematic regression for years, and looking at the current developments in the country, it is possible to say that this trend will not improve in the coming period.


The law cannot suppress society's longing for truth, facts and pluralism

Especially in recent months, there have been intensifying debates on false information and false content on social media on the government side. For example, President Erdogan talks about a social media law when the parliament reopens in October 2021. It is also rumored that an institution such as the “Presidency of Social Media” will be established. How do you evaluate all these developments?

Every year, without exception, before such a law is announced, columnists and journalists who support the government make an effort to guide the society by publishing the news of the examples in the world. While seeking legitimacy for practices that will narrow the field of rights and liberties, it mostly examines the bad examples of Europe and almost runs a propaganda process. At the end of this process, which continues quite one-sided, even though there is not enough knowledge in the society, community support is created for these laws. At this point, one of my criticisms is to the independent media... While such law preparations and persuasion processes are being carried out, the debate mostly revolves around pro-government discourse and point of view, and the voices of the experts, who touch on the gravity of the issue, remain very weak. I think we will face a similar picture in the upcoming period, and the restrictive law preparations, which are not criticized with a loud voice, will come to the parliament at midnight again...

If the purpose of these laws, which were prepared as if ignoring the will of the parliament and presented by the deputies of the ruling alliance, were to prevent social polarization, the spread of fake news and misinformation - they could actually do this by reorganizing the media organizations that are pro-government and mostly working as a propaganda factory. In that case, it will be possible to expect the continuation of these laws, as they have been used up until now, at a new level; which is an attempt to silence critical voices in digital media. For example, when the content removal practice came into effect within the scope of the Social Media Law in 2020, the government claimed that this mechanism would only be operated with a logic that would attack personal rights within a certain framework and put national security at the forefront. 

When we look at the effect of the law in the first six months, we see that nearly 600 news articles which are mostly political news and economy news have been removed. Law No. 5651, which emerged in 2007 with the claim of protecting children against the threats on the Internet, resulted in increased the number of institutions that could take a decision to block access to content and eliminate the need for a court decision over the years. Then it began to be used for the complete removal of content with its latest update in 2020. Now, a new law is being prepared to punish those who write, publish and spread news that the government does not like. However, although the censorship structures that advocated the prevention of access to information for thousands of years, have always developed new measures, the truth has always found a way and reached the society. For this reason, I think that the new law will also not be able to suppress society's longing for truth, facts and pluralism.

Gürkan Özturan, Media Freedom Rapid Response Coordinator at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom

The main reason for these discussions for the government is the fake news or misinformation on social media. Do you think this is an important problem in Turkey? If you think that false information is frequently circulating on social media, what could be the main reason for this? How can it be combated?

The circulation of lies and misinformation is not a phenomenon that emerged with social media. Even newspapers that are still printed on paper and known worldwide as “very reputable” may share fake news and misinformation from time to time. It is clear that there is a tendency for striking and shocking news in societies. Today, people who can access social media as the most common tool of communication do so on digital platforms. If it had been in the previous periods, maybe they would have done it in the printed or visual media or they would have told the stories containing false information during the chat in the coffee houses.

What about those who believe the fake news and share it... At this point, it is possible to see the reflection of media literacy and media pluralism levels in Turkey. When you condemn a society to one-sided or polarized broadcasts, the next step is the tendency of people to share something without questioning the environment they part of. At that point, facts no longer matters to them. They spread by accepting everything that will come from the side they support without question. For this reason, I do not expect that any law on the circulation of misinformation and the spread of false information will have an impact on media literacy levels in Turkey. As Ioanna Kuçuradi said, maybe if we supply philosophy education for 20 years, we can see an improvement in society. In a country that is already highly polarized, where every moment is full of tension and where no one feels at peace and one side is drafting laws to silence and intimidate the other's voice, I predict that it will become increasingly difficult to distinguish between what is true and what is false.

Although we do not yet know the content of the law that the government is talking about, what kind of law do you expect? Considering Turkey's score on digital rights and liberties so far, there is an image which access to many websites is blocked, social media users' accounts are closed or they are detained/arrested due to their social media posts. Therefore, there are doubts that this law will further restrict digital rights and freedoms.

Although there is not enough information about the content of the law yet, it can be interpreted that the power shown by the reflections seen in the media is currently measuring the pulse of the society. One day you see the news that "those who share XX content will be imprisoned for 5 years", a few days later one of the politicians of the government makes a statement that "the law will not include prison sentences". For this reason, whatever the draft bill contains, will be kept a secret until it comes to the parliament for voting, and neither the opinion of the civil society will be taken nor there will be a qualified discussion in the society or among political groups.

However, for now, the most frequent rumors we hear are establishment of an institution such as the Presidency of Social Media, to establish a censorship commission for digital platforms, and the people who are found to be spreading false information to face legal sanctions. I do not think that any law can stop misinformation on the internet, because it is possible to see people transferring them to their environment in a way they want to see in even thousands of years before, such as the two versions of Kadish Agreement.

Considering the statements of the ruling alliance officials in recent years, this law can also be seen as an effort to intimidate the society that still insists on media pluralism despite the government’s dominance over the conventional media. However, such laws neither prevent fake news nor silence independent and alternative voices. The tendency of knowledge is to spread, and throughout history all censorship/restriction/pressure has been somehow overcome. Although the first impression of such structures may seem like a huge censorship wall, only a tiny crack in that huge wall is enough for freedom of information. In the end, what I want to say is that no matter how repressed it is, the truth finds a way at some point and spreads to the society.