Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power now for 18 years, has long sought to more closely regulate and restrict social media platforms, the only sphere for news and communication still out of the government’s control.
Alarm bells are now ringing loudly as the government has announced plans to bring a sweeping bill into Parliament later this month that would dramatically expand government control over free expression on social media.
On July 1, 2020, Turkish President and AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in the AKP Provincial Chairs Meeting that the government was preparing to create a new legal framework for social media with the aim to “abolish such platforms completely or to [have them] be controlled”. The discussion over social media regulation was apparently sparked by Twitter comments on a post by Finance and Treasury Minister Berat Albayrak, who is also the son-in-law of Erdoğan, announcing his newborn baby. Erdoğan said the comments showed why more needed to be done to ensure that platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Netflix remove “such immorality and perverseness” and added: “Turkey is not a banana republic.”
In a written statement shortly after Erdoğan’s comments, Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun said that the president’s words had been taken out of context, but added: “The aforementioned social media platforms do not contribute to protecting our citizens’ rights against criminal acts such as sexual abuse, obscenity, gambling, fraud, incitement to crime, terrorist propaganda and insult. Even more, they constitute the ground for these crimes to be committed, despite all our warnings.’’
In the following days, AKP officials stated that a draft regulation with 9 articles was ready, but that further evaluation was continuing in order to comply with international legislation in this field. Later on, pro-government Hürriyet daily columnist and AKP supporter Abdulkadir Selvi wrote that the regulation is expected to be brought to the Parliament before July 15th.
First details leaked
Planned details of the 9-article draft regulation reported by local media confirm major fears about the Turkish government’s efforts to censor social media, following examples of other authoritarian countries such as Russia and China.
The plans, which remain vague, reportedly include:
- An obligation on all social media platforms with more than 1 million reach in Turkey to open an office or have a representative in Turkey to be the contact person for official requests for removal of illegal content or blocking access, especially Twitter
- These representatives will be responsible for responding to official requests for content removal or blocking within 72 hours.
- A requirement to ensure that social media users use their real identities to prevent fake accounts.
- Ensuring that social media platforms provide information to the judicial authorities upon suspicion of a crime.
- Hate speech will not be allowed.
AKP officials stated that the main problem is the lack of official representatives from social media networks in Turkey and fast enforcement. They have also stated that the sanctions for creating a fake account now will be increased.
Although the details about the draft bill are currently ambiguous and are based mostly on unofficial information, the first impressions are those of an attempt to establish complete control over social media and critical content by the government. If the bill passes, the legal infrastructure will strengthen the ruling AKP’s efforts to silence and suppress critical voices online including journalists, who have been already under constant attacks for their social media posts. For many journalists, social media is the last space in which they can do their work.
In a “Social Media User Guide” published by Communications Directorate in May, specific sections on social media use and fight against disinformation claim that “social media terrorists” use these platforms for provocation in a moment of a crisis, while the lack of a local representative in the country prevents the state from obtaining information on terrorist activities or criminal events.
Last open space under threat
Turkey has been criminalizing journalists and other dissident voices on allegations of terrorism-related crimes and defamation in the last few years at an increasing pace. According to IPI’s ‘’Turkey Free Expression Trial Monitoring Report’’ from March 2020, Turkish Penal Code Article 299 regulating “insulting the President of the Republic”, and Article 301 on “Denigrating the Turkish Nation, State of Turkish Republic, the Organs and Institutions of the State”; and “Turkey’s Anti-Terror Law’’ are commonly used against journalists and ordinary citizens expressing their opinions on social media. In particular, Article 7(2) of the Anti-Terror Law regulating terrorism propaganda via the press has been repeatedly criticised by IPI and other international human rights organizations because it fails to meet international standards on freedom of expression.
Turkey has also been arbitrarily targeting online news media and news articles with court rulings on access blocks. Local courts’ swift rulings to block critical news content of the governmental officials have shown an ascending trend in recent years. The most recent example was independent Cumhuriyet newspaper’s report on Altun’s illegal construction on a rental land belonging to the state institution revealing corruption in the rental agreement. Following Altun’s complaint, Cumhuriyet report along with 272 news articles reporting on the topic were blocked access by a court ruling.
According to the data of Freedom of Expression Association’s ‘’EngelliWeb 2019’’ report; as of the end of 2019, access to 130,000 URLs, 7,000 Twitter accounts, 40,000 tweets, 10,000 YouTube videos and 6,200 Facebook content has been blocked in accordance with Law No. 5651 on “Regulating Broadcasting in the Internet and Fighting Against Crimes Committed through Internet Broadcasting” and other provisions by Information Technologies and Communication Authority (BTK). As of the end of 2019, some 50,000 content have been taken down by content providers after access blocking decisions.
While the full details are not yet known, the new social media regulations will likely offer the Turkish authorities a new tool to remove online content and accelerate censorship in the country. Meanwhile, the proposed new regulations can be expected to accelerate Turkish authorities’ efforts to force social media companies to either delete content or hand over user data based on Turkey’s expansive definitions of “terrorism” and other concepts regularly abused to target journalists, and create the basis for new prosecutions of journalists.