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Clamp­down. How Turkey’s New Internet Law Threa­tens Journalists

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.