President Erdogan tightens the noose around social media

By massively regulating social media platforms, President Erdogan is trying to silence the remaining critical voices in Turkey, says Christian Mihr of the organisation Reporters Without Borders in his commentary

By Christian Mihr

Turkey is taking steps to close the window on press freedom once and for all. News of more restrictions comes as no surprise: Dozens of journalists have been unlawfully detained and given long prison sentences in unfair trials across Turkey, especially since the failed coup attempt in July 2016. Media pluralism has been all but destroyed. Until recently, social media platforms represented the last safe haven for critical Turkish journalists.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is politically weakened, and has been roundly criticised on social media sites for his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic – Turkey boasts more than 37 million Facebook users, as well as 16 million on Twitter. Now Erdogan is trying to silence his critics by forcing national controls on international social media platforms.

Independent online media face harassment

Now Turkey's parliament has approved changes to its 2007 legislation on cybercrime – a heavily used tool for silencing online media outlets. Prosecutorial authorities often use it to bring criminal charges against individuals on the grounds that they have insulted the nation or pose a threat to national security.

Blocking YouTube in Turkey (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/K. J. Hildenbrand)
Mit der Erweiterung des Gesetzes gegen Internetverbrechen schließe sich das Fenster für unabhängigen Journalismus in der Türkei weiter, warnt Christian Mihr, Geschäftsführer von Reporter ohne Grenzen Deutschland. Nach Einschränkungen der Pressefreiheit in den letzten Jahren waren die Plattformen wie Twitter oder Facebook lange ein letzter Zufluchtsort für kritische Medienschaffende. Mit der verschärften Kontrolle der sozialen Medien wolle Erdogan jetzt die wachsende Unzufriedenheit mit seinem Kurs weiter eindämmen.

But these most recent changes will force social media platforms with more than 1 million daily users to appoint a permanent representative in Turkey. That representative will act as the contact person for Turkish authorities, to deal with government complaints against content on their platforms involving possible criminal charges or invasions of privacy. Companies that fail to appoint a representative will face sanctions.

The Turkish authorities also want sites to create a mechanism for removing content within 48 hours of receiving an invasion of privacy complaint or court order. If insulting content is not immediately removed, sites will be blocked within four hours. Internet providers that fail to communicate government complaints to the responsible party will face heavy fines.

Social media control to smother political unrest

Reporters Without Borders rejects the expansion of Turkey's Internet legislation. It's clear that the aim of the law is to control social media platforms in order to smother growing political unrest. That will also restrict access to independent information, something that is vitally important in a society as highly polarised as Turkey is today.

The expansion of the law comes at a time when online censorship has been stepped up. Back in 2018, Turkish courts blocked access to at least 2,950 news articles and other journalistic content — including research and reports on political corruption, cronyism, as well as human rights and labour abuses. In addition, countless other sources of information have simply been blocked by authorities without court approval.

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.

Christian Mihr

© Deutsche Welle 2020

Christian Mihr is the director of Reporters Without Borders Germany, an international NGO engaged in securing press freedom and fighting censorship. Among other things, Mihr concentrates extensively on the situation facing journalists in Turkey.