The IPI Turkey National Committee (NC) hosted the English-language webinar “Digital Censorship: Turkey’s New Social Media Law and Its Implications for Free Media” following the passage of Turkey’s controversial new social media regulations in July.

On Monday, August 31, journalists and members of the IPI National Committee Banu Güven and Emre Kızılkaya hosted Sergey Lagodinsky, member of the European Parliament (Greens/EFA) and chair of the Delegation to the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee; academic and cyber-rights expert Yaman Akdeniz; and IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen. The panel discussed the new social media regulation, which dramatically expands government control over free expression on social media and online platforms.

The webinar started with cyber-rights expert Akdeniz giving the participants an overview of the new regulation and outlined Turkey’s efforts to control the internet since 2007, when Turkey first passed a broad law on internet regulation, the powers of which the current government has amended and extended with this new law.

“Turkey extensively relies on blocking powers”, Akdeniz said. He added: “In addition to access blocking measures, Turkey has now introduced two significant new measures that were not available previously. These are: the removal of content and the right to be forgotten, including as regards both news articles and social media content. If anyone claims defamation or violation of personal rights, now judges are entitled to issue not only blocking decisions but also content removal decisions – without any trial.”

Akdeniz said the scope of these new powers was broad, and could even allow politicians to force the removal of articles about corruption allegations that were published years ago.

He also added “the right to be forgotten” can be now used for content removal requests with regards to search engines.

The law mandates that large social media platforms establish a representative in Turkey, which would in turn make them liable under Turkish law. Following moderator Güven’s question of whether these platforms will comply and appoint a representative, Akdeniz said the platforms have not made up their mind yet. He emphasized that it is not an easy decision to make since they will not be coming to a friendly environment. “It is a hostile environment to do business in Turkey; the judiciary is not necessarily independent and the requirements that they will be facing in Turkey are not easy to address”, he said.

IPI Deputy Director Griffen underlined that IPI believes that social media platforms should be involved in these talks and come up with some response.

Griffen then evaluated the current situation and said: “Social media in many countries and online media, in general, has been a safe haven for a lot of types of political speech after critical expression was driven out of the mainstream press. This recent law by the Turkish government mirrors a trend that we see across the world — governments are obviously bothered by the fact that whatever they do to control the mainstream press, there is still going to be criticism and critical news online.”

Griffen highlighted that IPI sees this as a clear effort to shutdown one of the last free spaces for critical and political discourse in Turkey. He emphasized that these enormous penalties and the extreme pressure towards social media platforms is a kind of blackmail to force these companies to go along with the government’s restrictive understanding of free speech.

IPI NC Vice-Chair Kızılkaya added that the new social media regulation is part of an ongoing effort in Turkey to silence journalism.

When it was asked about the discussion at the EU level, German MEP Lagodinsky noted that there were a high number of problematic issues to discuss with the Turkish authorities.

Lagodinsky also sought to draw a clear distinction between the Turkish law and the German law regulating online platforms known as NetzDG. He said that unlike the Turkish law, NetzDG was stemmed from genuine concerns about hateful speech and disinformation online and it explicitly excluded journalist content from its scope, unlike the Turkish version, which explicitly includes it.

Lagodinsky also expressed scepticism that the law would be a topic under the German EU presidency. He said that the EU was focused on the geopolitical situation in the eastern Mediterranean, observing: “Fighting for oil and gas seems to be higher on the agenda than fighting for freedom and civil society.”

Griffen stressed that even though it was an extremely challenging situation, IPI believed that rights organizations can make a difference and emphasized that the fight for fundamental rights in Turkey must go on.

“Part of our job in IPI is to convince the political institutions to not to give up on Turkey and show that Turkish democracy is worth saving. IPI is also working to lay the groundwork for a freer media environment, we are looking ahead. We are not going to accept that Turkey is just going to become an authoritarian state, but rather that there is something to fight for. That is one of the messages we want to send: that hope is not lost yet,” Griffen said.

The webinar was the fourth in a new webinar series launched by IPI’s Turkey National Committee. Information on the first three webinars is available here.