The battle over Turkey’s internet

The passing of law 5651 in Turkey has made it possible for the Turkish government to block access to web pages that contain ‘undesirable’ material. This is part of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğans attempt to suppress any critique of the government. The journalist Alev Yaman writes about the consequences of this law.

July 8 2015 Text: Alev Yaman

Turkey’s beleaguered media sector has found itself facing a veritable sea of troubles in recent years. As President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has consolidated power in Turkey, it has also sought to gain hegemony over the nation’s often unruly press. The mass imprisonment of journalists in various, bogus anti-terror trials; the manipulation of the ownership of mainstream media companies via a process of tax audits, asset seizures and sales to government cronies; and a slew of intimidatory criminal defamation suits against anti-government critics have all played major roles in the AKP’s bid to tame dissenting voices within the fourth estate.

Yet perhaps the most significant of the challenges faced by the Turkish media has materialised in the online sphere, where a reaction to the culture of self-censorship in Turkey’s traditional press, particularly evident during the Gezi Park protests in 2013, has led to the emergence of social media and online news outlets as the most prominent means of news consumption for a growing portion of the public. The Turkish government has zealously sought to thwart this New Media threat, and its capacity to dictate an agenda contrary to the government’s desires, by instating an apparatus of censorship and surveillance in recent years that strikes at the very heart of free speech and freedom of the press in the country.

According to numbers obtained by opposition deputy Sezgin Tanrıkulu, news coverage of 149 topics was legally banned in Turkey between January 2010 and November 2014. Such legally enforced ‘publication bans’ have been applied against a plethora of news items, such as a corruption investigation implicating high ranking AKP officials and their families; a truck stop by the Turkish gendarmerie that uncovered the fact that the country’s National Intelligence Agency was transporting arms to Syria; the Roboski massacre, in which 34 civilians crossing the Turkish-Iraqi border were killed by an air strike conducted by the Turkish Air Force; the Reyhanlı bombings, in which at least 51 people died and 140 were injured by a series of car bombs in the southern town of Reyhanlı; the taking of 49 Turkish hostages by IS militants in a raid on the Turkish Consulate in Mosul; a match-fixing scandal that led to the Turkish football team Fenerbahҫe S.K. being banned from European competition for two years; and the front cover of the 14 January 2015 edition of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which was published in the aftermath of the deadly attack on the newspaper’s offices in Paris.

The Turkish authorities have been largely unconcerned by the argument that coverage of many of these news items could fall squarely within the public interest. Rather, authorities have pursued a strategy of suppressing coverage of news that might embarrass the government or expose it to criticism, with little regard for the notion that the public has the right to be properly informed on such issues of import. Suppression has largely taken the form of targeted online censorship, with courts ordering online news outlets to remove individual web pages featuring ‘prohibited’ news stories with increasing regularity. Non-compliance can lead to fines or even the wholesale closure of or denial of access to a news outlet’s entire website from within Turkey.

A news story featuring a video showing arms being uncovered on a Turkish truck bound for the Syrian border; a news story featuring a photograph of a public prosecutor being held hostage at gunpoint by members of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party—Front (DHKP-C); and opinion pieces featuring pictures of the front cover of the 14 January 2015 edition of Charlie Hebdo are among the individual web pages that have been blocked in this way in 2015. In 2014, access was blocked for a significant period of time to all of microblogging site Twitter, video-sharing site YouTube, audio distribution platform SoundCloud and online news outlets Grihat and Karşı Gazete after leaked audio recordings of senior AKP officials, including President Erdoğan and his family, surfaced on the internet in the aftermath of the December 2013 corruption investigation.

All of this is possible because of Law 5651; a controversial piece of legislation governing Turkey’s internet which allows for access to be blocked to websites that fail to comply with court-ordered content removal requests. Law 5651 sets out a multitude of reasons for demanding the removal of content or the blocking of access to websites, including protecting against: defamation, the unlawful violation of an individual’s personal life and privacy, obscenity, insult to the founder of the republic Ataturk and jeopardising national security or public order. Many of these terms are broadly defined under Law 5651 and a wide berth of discretion is left to the courts and internet regulators to determine whether a website block should be implemented or not. As of June 2015, access to over 80,000 websites is blocked from within Turkey under Law 5651. Some of the harder to explain blocks have been implemented against the websites of antique book vendors, lingerie and bikini sellers and graphic novel publishers; reflecting the often arbitrary nature of the blocks enforced under Law 5651. The law has also been used extensively to target websites used by Turkey’s LGBT community, with the gay dating sites Grindr and Gay.com among those blocked by authorities.

Yet for all the media attention paid to online censorship in Turkey, perhaps the bigger story lies in the more insidious threat posed by digital surveillance. Turkey’s recent track record is littered with targeted surveillance abuses, especially in the various anti-terror trials that saw Turkey lead the world for the number of jailed journalists in 2012 and 2013. Personal and professional phone calls and emails played a prominent role in establishing the organisational structures of these trumped up terrorist conspiracies. It was not unusual to see recorded conversations and email correspondence between editors and reporters - comprised entirely of discussions over what news stories to cover—being used as the primary proof of a journalist’s ‘terrorist activity’ and involvement in a prohibited group. The fact that material links to terrorism or the plotting of violent acts was completely absent from the evidence against these journalists seemed to count for little: books were deemed bombs, professional relationships were deemed criminal hierarchies, news stories were deemed the product of terrorist orders and digital documents gathered in the course of investigative journalism were deemed proof of anti-government malice. Journalists languished in pre-trial detention for years on end at the hands of Special Authority Courts handed extraordinary powers to try and detain individuals with the flimsiest of evidence.

As if the breadth of privileges and powers afforded to the authorities during these years weren’t sufficient, many of these investigations came to be characterised by the planting of fabricated digital evidence on the computers of journalists. At the same time, false names were used to surveil prominent journalists for lengthy periods of time in other investigations; reflecting the deep culture of disdain for the rule of law amongst the security services in Turkey.

These egregious surveillance abuses have largely gone unaddressed by the Turkish authorities, who have admitted that members of the security services and judiciary acted improperly following an ideological schism with the followers of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen. While the government has reigned in the powers of the judiciary by banning Special Authority Courts, it has done nothing to reduce the security services’ extraordinary surveillance powers.

Indeed, Turkey’s most recent reforms to Law 5651 have only increased the state’s censorship and surveillance powers, and moves have been made to try to bring Turkey’s telecommunications regulator under the control of the National Intelligence Agency. There is plenty of uncertainty over the future of Turkey’s internet in the aftermath of the 7 June 2015 parliamentary elections, where the public voted in record numbers to deny Erdoğan’s AKP an outright majority. As Turkey finds itself on the precipice of a new era in its parliamentary democracy, it is the media who stand to gain the most from the lifting of the draconian restrictions on the country’s digital freedoms.