60 int’l bodies express grave concerns over digital communications in Turkey at UNHRC

Sixty international organisations from around the globe express their grave concern about the growing crackdown by states on the use of secure digital communications – encryption, virtual private networks, and similar technologies and urged Turkey that the secure digital communications are essential for human rights.

In an oral statement at the UN Human Rights Council 36th session on Tuesday, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), IFEX, Access Now, ARTICLE 19, Front Line Defenders, Privacy International and 60 organisations from around the globe have expressed their concern about the growing crackdown by states on the use of secure digital communications – encryption, virtual private networks, and similar technologies.

Underlining that the crackdown both violates states’ human rights obligations under international law, and seriously undermines both the safety of human rights defenders and the economic and social benefits that digital technology provides, the presentation has said that “Many governments, including Australia and the United Kingdom, have recently threatened to legislate ‘backdoors’ to encryption, enabling them to access private communications when they believe they have a justification for doing so. Backdoors expose all communications running through them to potential compromise by malevolent actors, including criminals, stalkers and terrorists.”

Reminding equally worrying trend of states’ treating the use of secure communications as a crime, or as evidence of “terrorist” activity, it was said in the statement that “In particular, we highlight Turkey’s recent arrest and continued pre-trial detention of IT consultant Ali Gharavi and non-violence trainer Peter Steudtner at a digital security and information management workshop on July 5 of this year.”

“Gharavi and Steudtner were arrested doing their jobs, imparting knowledge and skills that are essential to the exercise of human rights in the digital age, as they have done for many years with civil society groups around the world. Secure digital communications can often be the only safe outlet for free expression for those persecuted for their religion, ethnicity, sexual identity, personal beliefs or for promoting human rights. Turkey’s decision to criminalise this knowledge sharing as aiding ‘terrorism’ is indefensible, and sets a dangerous precedent for the handling of this expression-enabling activity that should be part of any healthy democracy,” said the statement.

The statement has also reminded that “In March the Council urged states not to interfere with the use of secure digital communications,”  and added that “We request the Council to actively to work with states to ensure the internet is a space that fosters rather than limits the exercise of all recognised human rights; to monitor efforts by member states to restrict or compromise the use of secure digital communications.”

The group has further called on Turkish government to drop all charges against Gharavi, Steudtner and the eight human rights defenders arrested with them; to cease criminalising the use of secure digital communications.

Turkish authorities believe that a mobile phone encrypted messaging application, ByLock, is a communication tool among followers of the faith-based Gülen movement and tens of thousands of people, including civil servants, police officers, soldiers, businessmen and housemakers, have either been dismissed or arrested for using ByLock since the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

A recent legal opinion published in London found that tens of thousands of Turkish citizens detained or dismissed from their jobs on the basis of downloading ByLock have had their human rights violated.

According to a report in The Guardian last week, a study commissioned by opponents of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and conducted by a pair of 2 Bedford Row attorneys argues that the arrest of 75,000 suspects primarily because they downloaded the ByLock app is arbitrary and illegal.

According to the report by Guardian legal affairs correspondent Owen Bowcott, the legal opinion was commissioned by a pro-Gülen organization based in Europe. The two experienced British barristers, William Clegg QC and Simon Baker, drafted the opinion.

“The evidence that the [ByLock] app was used exclusively by those who were members or supporters of the Gülen movement [is] utterly unconvincing and unsupported by any evidence,” the two barristers said, according to the Guardian.

“There is a great deal of evidence … which demonstrates that the app was widely available and used in many different countries, some of which had no links to Turkey.”

The detention of people on this basis is “arbitrary and in breach of article 5” of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which guarantees the right to liberty, the report says.

The report examines transcripts of recent trials of Gülen followers in Turkey as well as Turkish intelligence reports on ByLock. It concludes that the cases presented so far violate the ECHR, to which Turkey is a party.

The list of signatories of the statement presented at the UN Human Rights Council 36th session on Tuesday is as follow:

  1. Access Now*
  2. ARTICLE 19*
  3. Association for Progressive Communications*
  4. Front Line Defenders*
  5. International Service for Human Rights*
  6. Privacy International*
  7. 7amleh – Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media
  8. ActiveWatch – Media Monitoring Agency
  9. Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC)
  10. Albanian Media Institute
  11. Alternatives
  12. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
  13. Association for Civil Rights
  14. Association of Caribbean Media Workers
  15. BlueLink
  16. Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism
  17. Bytes for All (B4A)
  18. Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
  19. Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI)
  20. Center for Media Studies & Peace Building (CEMESP)
  21. Child Rights International Network (CRIN)
  22.  Centre for Information Technology and Development
  23. Código Sur
  24. Derechos Digitales
  25. Digital Rights Foundation
  26. Digital Society of Zimbabwe
  27. Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
  28. EngageMedia
  29. eQualit.ie
  30. Fantsuam Foundation
  31. Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP)
  32. Freedom Forum
  33. Free Media Movement
  34. Global Voices Advox
  35. Globe International Center
  36. GreenNet
  37. Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
  38. I’lam Arab Center for Media Freedom Development and Research
  39. Index on Censorship
  40. Internet Democracy Project
  41. Initiative for Freedom of Expression – Turkey
  42. Instituto Prensa y Sociedad de Venezuela
  43. International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
  44. International Press Centre (IPC)
  45. LaborNet
  46. Mediacentar Sarajevo
  47. Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance
  48. Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA)
  49. Media Watch
  50. Nodo TAU
  51. Norwegian PEN
  52. Nupef
  53. One World Platform
  54. OpenMedia
  55. Pacific Islands News Association
  56. Pangea
  57. PEN Canada
  58. PEN International
  59. Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  60. Rhizomatica
  61. SFLC.in
  62. Southeast Asian Press Alliance
  63. South East European Network for Professionalization of Media
  64. Swedish PEN
  65. Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State

*Indicates the NGO is in consultative status with ECOSOC

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