RSF slams Turkey’s new social media regulation

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in a statement issued July 22 condemned an amendment to the law on Internet crimes submitted this week by the Turkish government to the parliament, the aim of which, according to RSF, is silencing mounting online criticism.

“The government’s goal is to control social media, the only remaining refuge for critical journalists in Turkey,” RSF said, adding, “Turkey has more than 37 million Facebook subscribers and 16 million Twitter subscribers, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is keener than ever to tighten his legislative grip on these and other social media platforms after being undermined by a great deal of online criticism since the start of the coronavirus crisis.”

The bill to amend the law on Internet crimes was submitted on July 21 to parliament by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) at President Erdoğan’s request. “This is a law that, since its adoption in 2007, the authorities have already massively exploited to silence online media by abusing provisions penalizing insults and threats to national security,” RSF stated.

The new 11-article regulation aims to force social media platforms to open an office in Turkey, comply with requests and decisions by Turkey’s courts and pass on notifications from the Turkish authorities to their subscribers.

The new regulation was adopted on July 24 by the Turkish Parliament’s Justice Committee. Pressed by the president, the ruling party is planning to pass the bill into law before parliament takes a summer recess.

The bill sets forth progressive sanctions according to which social media platforms with more than 1 million connections a day must appoint a representative in Turkey with whom the Turkish authorities can resolve problems arising from cases of insults, intimidation and violation of privacy.

If they refuse to appoint a local representative, they will be subject to phased sanctions: an initial administrative fine of 10 million Turkish lira (1.3 million euros), then a fine of 30 million lira (3.9 million euros), then a 3 month-ban on advertising and withdrawal of earnings, and finally, as a last resort, a 50 percent reduction in bandwidth that can go up to 90 percent in the event of continued non-compliance. Internet access providers would be required to implement this final sanction within four hours.

The Turkish authorities also want these platforms to create a mechanism for responding within 48 hours to complaints about “violations of personal rights” or to judicial orders to remove content. If offending content is not removed, websites will be rendered inaccessible within four hours.

Internet hosting service providers that fail to inform the persons concerned about the Turkish authorities’ requests could be given an administrative fine ranging from 1 million lira (130,000 euros) to 10 million lira (1.3 million euros).

“After being politically weakened, it is deplorable that the sole response President Erdogan has found is to nationalize the management of international digital platforms in order to silence the fierce criticism he has been receiving on the Internet – the only refuge left for outspoken journalists,” RSF Turkey representative Erol Onderoglu said.

“Subjecting these platforms to the control of courts that are under the president’s thumb will close the small window through which many online journalists are still just about managing to breathe. It is clear that such control aims to silence the growing political unrest and will impact on the flow of critical and independent information, which is primordial in a polarized society,” he added.

“The president had nothing to say when the army of trolls controlled by his party waged intimidation and disinformation campaigns against his critics, including journalists of various political tendencies,” the statement claimed, citing Twitter’s closure of 7,340 accounts controlled by AKP trolls in June.

Following allegedly defamatory and sexist social media messages about his newborn grandson, the son of his eldest daughter Esra and her husband, Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan declared that his government would take immediate action to suppress social media platforms.

“You understand now why we oppose this social media,” Erdoğan said on July 1. “This nation and this country do not deserve this treatment. This is why we want to address this issue as quickly as possible in parliament and suppress all these platforms.”

According to RSF, “The government also wields direct control over many judges, who censor scores of online articles without giving any reason.

“In mid-February, one of these judges ordered the blocking of 232 articles that had been published online by news sites and other media outlets including Cumhuriyet, Bianet, Diken, BirGün, Artı Gerçek, Gazete Duvar, T24, Odatv, Sputnik Türkiye, Evrensel, Halk TV, Tele1 and Gerçek Gündem.

“They all referred to the finance minister’s purchase of land in Eastern Thrace (Turkey’s westernmost region) through which the government plans to dig a canal linking the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara.

According to the news website Bianet, RSF’s partner in Turkey, 586 online articles and nine social media accounts were rendered inaccessible by the Turkish courts in 2019 in the course of ‘the Turkish government’s war against independent information online.

“In March 2019, RSF reported that in 2018 the courts had blocked access to at least 2,950 articles and journalistic content items, including stories about political corruption, clientelism, human rights violations and exploitation or workers, and that an unknown number of content blockings were carried out without references to the courts.

“The Turkish authorities also had no qualms about blocking all access to the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia from April 2017 to January 2020 because of content accusing them of complicity with Islamic State.

“Turkey is ranked 154th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.”

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