Internet freedom in Turkey has steadily declined over the past decade, with the country again ranking among the “not free” countries concerning online freedoms, according to a new report from the US-based nonprofit Freedom House, Turkish Minute reported.
The 2023 Freedom on the Net report, published on Oct. 4, assesses the state of internet freedom in 70 countries through a comprehensive methodology examining obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of user rights.
Turkey has a score of 30 in a 100-point index with scores being based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free).
The country’s score in the 2022 index was slightly better with 32, which was, however, insufficient to save Turkey from the list of “not free” countries.
The report referred to Turkey’s new “disinformation law” as contributing to the declining internet freedoms in the country between June 1, 2022 and May 31, 2023.
Turkey’s parliament in October 2022 approved the tough pre-election law that could see reporters and social media users jailed for up to three years for spreading “fake news.”
The rules cemented the government’s already-firm grip on the media months before May 2023 general election, which resulted in the re-election of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Freedom House said in its report that in the run-up to the May 2023 elections, the “disinformation law” was used to silence members of the political opposition as well as critical journalists.
“Censorship is widespread, and hundreds of websites, online articles, and social media posts have been blocked or removed. Online troll networks frequently amplify progovernment disinformation, and journalists, activists, and social media users continue to face legal charges for their online content,” said the report.
As the key developments which contributed to online censorship in Turkey between June 1, 2022 and May 31, 2023, Freedom House mentioned the blocking of social media and communications platforms in November 2022 after a bombing in İstanbul, and again in February 2023 following two major earthquakes in the south of the country.
Following the February earthquakes, which claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people, the government blocked Twitter for eight hours, ostensibly to combat disinformation. Turkish government authorities met with Twitter’s policy team and later announced that the company had agreed to cooperate with authorities to remove disinformation from the platform. The blocking hindered emergency rescue efforts as people had been using Twitter to call for help following the disaster.
The report also talked about the removal of online content by the authorities ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections in May, their spreading of pro-government disinformation and their issuing of criminal penalties against internet users.
One day before the May 14 elections, Twitter announced that it was restricting access in Turkey to certain account holders to ensure the platform “remains available to the people of Turkey,” a move seen by critics as giving in to Erdoğan, who was seeking reelection.
Twitter’s owner Elon Musk said Turkey had threatened to block the whole site.
The accounts that were restricted by Twitter included those of Kurdish businessman Muhammed Yakut and investigative journalist Cevheri Güven. The timing of these restrictions, coming only a day before a critical election, raised concerns that the move was politically motivated, potentially stifling voices of dissent and impacting the election’s outcome.
The report also said several political opposition websites were subject to cyberattacks during the electoral period.
For instance, opposition’s joint presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s short-message service (SMS) messages to voters were blocked by the Turkish Telecommunications Authority (BTK) two days before the second round of elections on May 28, reportedly because preelection “digital or analog” propaganda was prohibited.