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Story Publication logo February 17, 2014

The Last Chance to Stop Turkey's Harsh New Internet Law


Turkey Under Protest

When protests flooded Turkey, they revealed deep problems. Police brutality, authoritarianism, and a...

Media file: gezimhh.jpg
Barricades from Gezi Park protests in summer 2013. Image by Matthew Herman. Turkey, 2013.

It can be easy to overlook Turkey's President, Abdullah Gül, who is overshadowed by the country's far more powerful, and visible, Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an object of greater fascination for the international press. But right now Gül is at the center of attention, as he considers whether to veto a controversial bill that would dramatically increase the government's ability to control the Internet. The bill requires service providers to collect and retain individual data for up to two years, and grants the government the authority to block Web sites without obtaining a court order. Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.) maintains that the law is intended to protect privacy online, but critics see it as a measure to suppress information about investigations into government corruption that began last December. On February 5th, the bill passed through the Turkish parliament, where the A.K.P. has a commanding majority, but it immediately sparked violent street protests and outcries from human-rights groups. Gül, who helped to found the A.K.P., no longer belongs to any party, a requirement of the Turkish Presidency. Still, if he decides to veto the bill, he will be seen as having held the line against rising authoritarianism—a role that critics of the A.K.P. have been projecting upon him ever since last summer, when he responded to the anti-Erdoğan protests in Gezi Park in a relatively conciliatory manner. But there may not be much evidence to justify that optimism.

The government's intentions for the Internet bill came under further suspicion last week, in the case of Mahir Zeynalov, a journalist for the English-language newspaper Today's Zaman. At the time the bill passed, Zeynalov had nearly eighty-five thousand followers on Twitter. On a typical day, he posted at least a dozen times, mostly about Turkish and regional politics, which he covers for Today's Zaman. These are mainstream topics, but they are not without danger: between last summer's mass protests and the ongoing corruption scandal, the terrain of Turkish journalism has become quicksand. Journalists can be fired or imprisoned for approaching controversial subjects, and some media outlets have likewise been pressured or fined into near-oblivion. Many journalists have wilted under censorship; during turbulent times, their muted work reads like dispatches from an alternate reality.

But, while the traditional media idles, the Internet has expanded the ranks of those who break news in Turkey. During the Gezi Park protests, activists organized and spread news online, famously prompting Erdoğan to call Twitter a "scourge." He hasn't warmed to it since. The corruption investigation has implicated the sons of cabinet ministers and influential businessmen, and continues to inch closer to Erdoğan's inner circle, gaining ground online. Outside the cautious world of newspapers and television, social media has become a repository for criticism and, recently, for recordings that some suggest are suppressed evidence of corruption. Earlier this week, Erdoğan admitted that one such recording, of a conversation in which the Prime Minister admonishes a media executive for his coverage of Gezi, was real. "I only made some reminders," he explained.

Late last year, Erdoğan filed a lawsuit against Zeynalov for a tweet he had posted about a news report in Today's Zaman, which suggested that Istanbul police had stalled the arrest of suspects in the corruption investigation—including a Saudi businessman accused of ties to Al Qaeda. Zeynalov responded by tweeting a photo of a penguin, a cheeky reference to press censorship during the Gezi Park protests, when CNN Turk opted to air a documentary about penguins rather than covering events in the streets. But it doesn't seem very funny anymore; Zeynalov, who has been working in Turkey for several years and is married to a Turkish woman, was expelled from the country last Friday and deported to his native Azerbaijan. According to a press release from Today's Zaman, the deportation was "in response to tweets sent from Zeynalov's Twitter account @mahirzeynalov that the government deemed inappropriate." Today's Zaman is affiliated with Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric widely believed to be a strong opposing power to Erdoğan's authority, and Zeynalov's deportation has been seen, in part, as a challenge to Gülen. But it also sent a chilling message to foreign journalists, who have generally enjoyed more freedoms than their Turkish counterparts: whatever the government deems "inappropriate" is now grounds for deportation. The larger message, that writing on the Internet has consequences, was soon illustrated by Zeynalov himself. By evening on the day he was deported he had tweeted only one thing: a photo that showed him being escorted by police through Istanbul's Atatürk Airport.

"We are freer compared to other countries," Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister, Bülent Arinç, assured the Turkish parliament during the debate over the Internet bill. But Arinç didn't specify which countries are "less free" than Turkey. A 2013 Freedom House report on Internet restrictions places countries into three categories: free, partly free, and not free. Turkey falls in the middle, "freer" than Iran, China, and Syria, which are classified as "not free," but less so than the United States or Ukraine.

Geoffrey King, the Internet-advocacy coördinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (C.P.J.), had harsh criticism for the proposed law. "Turkey is going in the wrong direction very rapidly," he told me. "Substantively, the bill is abysmal. It allows for pervasive surveillance and censorship. Yes, it depends on what the government will do with those tools, but Turkey has certainly shown its willingness to imprison journalists for their work as journalists." In this category, Turkey does beat China, Iran, Syria, and every other country in the world. It has more journalists in jail than any other nation—forty, at last count. A.K.P. supporters maintain that these forty are actually criminals who happen to be journalists, denying any censorship or intimidation. In parliament, Arinç essentially brushed the issue aside, insisting that, in Turkey, "We have freedom of the press." His optimistic outlook may not be completely unfounded: throughout 2012, according to the C.P.J., there were forty-nine journalists in prison. (Other organizations have reported even higher numbers.)

"This is a fully terrible law," Kerem Altiparmak, a professor of political science at Ankara University, told me. Altiparmak, who has worked extensively on Internet freedom in Turkey, said that he was most alarmed by the manner in which the new law could be used: not only without the participation of the judiciary but also without the knowledge of the individual. "For instance, if the administration asks for a record of your use, you will have no knowledge of this," Altiparmak said. "Since you don't know that it happened it will be difficult to defend. Three years later there might be a case against you. You might learn that you visited a Web page or sent an e-mail two or three years ago. You no longer even have that computer."

Turkey, Altiparmak said, has not gone as far as China in censoring online content; it is not in the country's interest to be quite so severe and sweeping. Instead, the law allows for the more targeted blocking of U.R.L.s, which, as King highlights in his piece for the C.P.J., is no less harmful for being less obvious. "Rather than blocking all of Twitter, they will block your account," Altiparmak said. "They think that this will draw less criticism, and that the public will react less. Social media is widely used. Draconian measures against the whole Web site would be very harmful."

During the Gezi protests, the ability to organize and shape news online seemed like the opposition's best weapon against police brutality, an intractable government, and a silent media. Although the Turkish government has pressured the media for many years—and has had a great deal of control online through past Internet laws—social media, especially, remained a relative safe haven for diverse and independent voices. One veteran journalist, who was fired from a pro-government newspaper for criticizing Erdoğan's response to the corruption probe, remarked that she had more followers on Twitter than her previous employer had readers. But the Internet has never been beyond the reach of Turkish law, and while it has bolstered opposition voices in the country it can also make them more vulnerable.

When I spoke to a Syrian media activist (who preferred to remain anonymous), he presented a more complicated picture of Internet freedom: "There was an Internet law [in Syria], and when it was loosened, that was a negative thing," he told me. "The government wanted people who were active on the ground to use social networks so they could monitor them." Turkey's restrictive Internet bill, he suggested, could provoke a useful disillusionment among Turkish activists. "The Internet has the potential to be an incredible vehicle for human expression and the spreading of ideas," King said. "But it is also incredibly useful for governments that want to spy on their people."

If Gül vetoes the bill, he will inject some optimism into a weary press and opposition. He will also be helping to remind A.K.P. officials of what they may already be learning: "They can't stop the Internet," as the Syrian activist put it. Previous measures to control online activity in Turkey have fallen short. Web sites devoted to Kurdish news have been censored for years, but that has not stopped Kurdish activists from organizing. When mainstream media balked at covering the Gezi protests or did so with bias, they provided further evidence of Turkey's disrespect for freedom of expression. That led to more protests, and changed the relationship between the A.K.P. and its opposition. Zeynalov remains in Baku, but he is back on Twitter, sending his nearly ninety thousand followers links to pieces critical of the Turkish government, particularly stories about his own deportation. One person familiar with circumventing Turkey's censorship is Ali Ergin Demirhan, a volunteer at Çapul TV, an Internet-based news broadcast named after Gezi's "çapulcu" ("vandals"). "There will be resistance on the Internet," he told me. "When they close a Web page, we will open another Web page. The censorship of the Internet is impossible, I think." But even he was chastened by the recent developments. "The next two years will be very hard for Turkey," he said.

The new law, King concluded, is "shocking but not surprising." It is the latest strike against freedom of expression in Turkey, the mass arrest and firing of journalists being only one precursor. Existing laws temporarily shut down Vimeo, in 2014, and YouTube, most recently in 2010. A 2013 Google transparency report listed Turkey as having requested more information to be taken down than anywhere else in the world, another blue ribbon. But modes of dissent have changed as well. Three days after the bill passed, protesters flooded Taksim Square. They were met by riot police and volleys of tear gas; by the end of the night, makeshift barricades were sopping wet from water cannons.

"What I think is especially telling about the danger of the law is how much people care about it," King said. "People are putting their bodies physically on the streets. This is a law about the virtual world and people are being subjected to tear gas and water cannons in the real world."



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