The free use of the internet has been subject to growing censorship pressure in Turkey for years. However, the new internet law that came into effect in 2020 now directly targets social media - and thus threatens journalistic work and freedom of information head-on.

  • K. Zeynep Sarıaslan

    K. Zeynep Sarıaslan is visiting fellow at the European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science. She was previously at the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin and worked as a lecturer at the University of Bern Institute of Social Anthropology. She studied sociology and social anthropology at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara and received her Ph.D. in 2018 from the University of Zurich in 2018. Her current research project deals with reconfigurations of media, migration, digital cultures, and transnational politics.

Jour­na­lists in Turkey felt their anxiety surge in June 2020 as the country’s parlia­ment passed amend­ments to its Internet Law which began regu­la­ting social media provi­ders. Accor­ding to Amnesty Inter­na­tional, “the amend­ments target one of the few remai­ning – albeit incre­asingly rest­ricted – spaces where people can express their opinions freely.” Although a majo­rity of Turkish people still get their news from TV and don’t have Twitter accounts, social media had in recent years offered a much less regu­lated infor­ma­tion outlet. As Tom Porteous from Human Rights Watch explained, “social media is a life­line for many people who use it to access news, so this law signals a new dark era of online censor­ship.”

As Ankara was clam­ping down on what can be said on Twitter, I was rese­ar­ching online news-making prac­tices of Turkish jour­na­lists in Germany. My rese­arch led me to speak with two types of jour­na­lists in Germany: some were recent exiles, others had immi­grated long ago. Those who were recent exiles were parti­cu­larly nervous because they relied heavily on social media to access their audi­ence back “home”. To illus­trate the extent of the government’s new control over online broad­cas­ting, Can Dündar, a self-exiled jour­na­list living in Germany since 2016, compared the new law to an on/off button of social media controlled by the Presi­den­tial Palace. While the legis­la­tion came into force in early October of 2020, it is still unclear how it will impact inde­pen­dent Turkish jour­na­lists living abroad. 

Internet censor­ship

The new “Internet Law”, offi­ci­ally known as the “Regu­la­tion of Publi­ca­tions on the Internet and Suppres­sion of Crimes Committed by Means of Such Publi­ca­tion”, brings new rules for foreign-based social network provi­ders such as Face­book, Twitter, and Google. Indeed, these online plat­forms are now required to assign at least one autho­rized repre­sen­ta­tive in Turkey, and this person will face the State’s penal­ties, if the social network fails to respond within 48 hours to offi­cial requests to remove content that the State deems unde­si­rable. Further­more, every six months, the company repre­sen­ta­tive is now also required to submit reports to autho­ri­ties with infor­ma­tion about users in Turkey.

Elisa­betta Costa, „Social Media in Southeast Turkey
Love. Kinship and Politics“.

The stif­ling of Turkish dissen­ters has been growing since the summer of 2013, when a wave of public demons­tra­tions followed the urban deve­lo­p­ment plan for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park. In her book “Social Media in Southeast Turkey” published in 2016, ethno­grapher Elisa­betta Costa reported that “the Gezi Park protests in June 2013 […] led to govern­mental propa­ganda against social media and rein­forced the government’s conspi­racy theory, accor­ding to which many Euro­pean count­ries were backing and supporting the protes­ters to damage Turkey’s economy and poli­tical stabi­lity. This anti-social media propa­ganda inten­si­fied during the poli­tical campaign season ahead the local elec­tions in March 2014, when YouTube and Twitter were used to discredit the repu­ta­tion of Prime Minister Erdoğan who was running for the office of the president.” 

In February 2014, the Internet Law was amended, and it became easy for autho­ri­ties to block websites without a court ruling. Initi­ally aimed at protec­ting children from harmful content and preven­ting viola­tion of personal rights, the law was then used to ban online plat­forms such as YouTube, Twitter, and Wiki­pedia. The amend­ment increased State censor­ship. In one striking example, the govern­ment blocked the publi­shing of secretly recorded phone calls that exposed corrup­tion among poli­ti­cians and high-level bureau­crats. In the summer of 2016, the failed coup was followed by a state of emer­gency where the govern­ment shut-down the vast majo­rity of alter­na­tive or oppo­si­tional online news channels. 

Impe­ding journalism

In this incre­asingly tense poli­tical climate, many profes­sional jour­na­lists migrated to Europe. Since 2017, these exiles have been provi­ding uncen­sored news for an audi­ence who mainly remained in Turkey. Most of these small news orga­ni­sa­tions had very limited budgets and were ther­e­fore forced to rely on free online tools offered by social media. Further­more, their websites are not always acces­sible in Turkey because of the Internet Law, so these over­seas Turkish jour­na­lists are parti­cu­larly reliant on their social media accounts.

Inde­pen­dent voices have been incre­asingly silenced. Indeed in 2018, Turkish autho­ri­ties prevented jour­na­lists in exile from using web-based broad­cas­ting services, such as Internet radios by blocking access to their websites. Simi­larly, that same year, tele­vi­sion chan­nels and plat­forms that broad­cast on the internet, either in Turkey or abroad, became subjected to the super­vi­sion of the Radio and Tele­vi­sion Supreme Council („RTÜK“). This was also the government’s first legal move to force foreign plat­forms to estab­lish an offi­cial entity in Turkey. Initi­ally, these new measures did not seem like such a big deal in a country where the primary source of infor­ma­tion remains tele­vi­sion. However, conside­ring the domi­nance of pro-government voices in Turkey’s conven­tional media and the reli­ance of inde­pen­dent news provi­ders on foreign plat­forms, these 2018 measures threa­tened inde­pen­dent jour­na­lists with total discon­nec­tion from their audi­ences. In this context, exiled jour­na­lists used social media plat­forms, such as YouTube, as solu­tions to bypass the government’s legis­la­tion. In June 2020, the govern­ment struck back with its updated regu­la­tion on social media. 

Many young Turkish jour­na­lists living in Germany think that it is still wort­hwhile to continue their work, even from afar: 

“I find it still weird to live abroad, to gather infor­ma­tion not on the street but on the desk, to process it and then send back to the audi­ence in Turkey. Why do we do it, then? Simply because we are free to make news here [in Germany].” 

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Moreover, they find social media very powerful: “It is not easy to make news without being there in Turkey and taping into the feeling in the streets… However, we are living in a diffe­rent world called Twitter. Put aside chal­lenges of being a migrant, tech­no­logy solves problems of migrant jour­na­lists to a great degree.” Still, migrant jour­na­lists rely heavily on their cont­acts in Turkey: 

I some­times feel like I will only rely on my cont­acts that I made in Turkey if I stay here longer. It is not possible to make a large network and gather diffe­rent voices here. 

Most of the time, repor­ters working on the ground in Turkey gather the infor­ma­tion and define the agenda: “Some­times I feel useless here. They are doing all the work. What is my contribution?” 

Regu­la­tion of “Hate Speech” as a model and pretext

Chris­tian Mihr, the director of Repor­ters Without Borders Germany, empha­sized that 

Turkey’s expan­sion of its Internet Law confirms what we have been saying all along: autho­ri­ta­rian regimes are poin­ting to the prece­dent set by, among others, Germany’s 2017 Network Enforce­ment Act (NetzDG), a measure to fight hate speech, as justi­fi­ca­tion for passing new laws that tighten their control of social media. 

I talked to Consti­tu­tional Law scholar Ali Rıza Çoban, and he agreed that the 2020 Internet Law was in line with the spirit of General Data Protec­tion Regu­la­tion (GDPR) of the Euro­pean Union and inspired by similar laws in Germany and France. Offi­cials in Turkey have used their new Internet Law to have incon­ve­nient news removed: content related to corrup­tion and contro­ver­sial poli­tical figures. However, Çoban under­lined that social media regu­la­tions are highly debated in Germany while the Consti­tu­tional Council in France cancelled many of them. Ther­e­fore, Çoban argued that the “law in Germany is a much more limited version of Turkey’s Internet Law. Most importantly, juri­dical inde­pen­dence and freedom of speech do exist in Germany but not in Turkey.” 

Moreover, Ankara wants money from social media plat­forms. Indeed, since October 2020, Turkey has charged Face­book, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok and Insta­gram four million euros, each, for brea­king the new law. In the coming months, social media giants will face other penal­ties inclu­ding the prohi­bi­tion of selling adver­ti­se­ments and redu­cing the social network provider’s internet traffic band­width by up to 90% if they do not abide by the new legis­la­tion. If they do not obey the new law, acces­sing these social media plat­forms in Turkey will become nearly impos­sible after May 2021. 

The Turkish govern­ment is expec­ting to make some substan­tial economic gains with the new Internet Law. Indeed, taxing the adver­ti­se­ment reve­nues of tech­no­logy compa­nies is what the govern­ment has been aiming to do since 2010. However, this would harm small busi­nesses that use Face­book as a trading platform. 

The Limits of State Control

It is unclear if the social media plat­forms have the tech­nical capa­city to share the data of their users, even if they wanted to. Indeed, a Turkish source close to the social media industry explained that even the compa­nies them­selves do not have access to the encrypted data that users exch­ange among them­selves. This would suggest that the demands of autho­ri­ties might not be realistic. 

Although some could argue that the new Turkish law is not compa­tible with the reality of the tech­no­lo­gical infra­struc­ture, it remains unclear how compa­nies handle data. That said, in January 2021 when WhatsApp asked its users in Turkey to accept new terms that allow sharing data with Face­book, many users protested and swit­ched to other instant messa­ging appli­ca­tions. Chal­lenged by the reac­tion coming from users, inclu­ding from Presi­dent Erdoğan himself, WhatsApp post­poned its new policy to May 2021.

Back in the summer of 2020, right before the parlia­ment passed the amend­ments to the Internet Law, Presi­dent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told an assembly of NGOs that 

We are working on a compre­hen­sive legis­la­tion in this regard. Once it is completed, we will put in place all methods [of regu­la­ting social media] inclu­ding access rest­ric­tions and legal and finan­cial sanc­tions. Turkey is not a banana republic.

A couple of weeks later, Twitter closed more than 7,000 accounts for making pro-government propa­ganda: “Based on our analysis of the network’s tech­nical indi­ca­tors and account beha­viors, the coll­ec­tion of fake and compro­mised accounts was being used to amplify poli­tical narra­tives favourable to the AK Parti [the gover­ning party, AKP], and demons­trated strong support for Presi­dent Erdogan.” Turkey has 13.6 million Twitter users, making it the company’s 7th largest market. Further­more, it remains a highly poli­ti­cized plat­form in Turkey, an online space where the youth orga­nize coll­ec­tive actions, espe­ci­ally as it has become incre­asingly compli­cated to demons­trate in the streets. An exiled jour­na­list once complained to me about not being able to orga­nise digital protests as successfully in Germany as in Turkey. Right after moving to Germany, he started to work as a jour­na­list in Berlin but was poorly treated by his employer. In parallel, he also runs a popular Twitter account with more than one million follo­wers, mainly in Turkey. He said, “If this would have happened in Turkey, I would make it a hashtag and that would have fixed things.” 


This text is published in coope­ra­tion with the pilot blog of the Swiss Society of Middle Eastern and Islamic Cultures (SGMOIK), which supports young rese­ar­chers in the field of science communication.