Political and civil rights in Turkey have deteriorated so severely under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that Turkey is no longer a free country, according to a new report by Freedom House on Internet freedom around the world.
Turkey was first classified as “not free” in the 2018 edition of the report, losing its status as “partly free” due to the loss of political and civil rights following a widespread crackdown in the wake of a failed 2016 coup and a controversial referendum in 2017, which gave the Turkish president expansive new powers.
The 2020 “Freedom on the Net” report gave Turkey a 35 out of 100 on the Internet freedom scale, while Iceland topped the list with a score of 95. Turkey’s global freedom score, on the other hand, is 32, lower than such countries as Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh and Haiti, which are categorized as “partly free.” The Scandinavian countries of Finland, Sweden and Norway topped the list with a full mark of 100.
Turkey’s score on “obstacles to access,” “limits on content” and “violations of user rights” dropped by 2 points from the previous year’s score because the government temporarily blocked social media platforms, leaving people living in the south of the country without access to essential services and tools, the report said.
The arbitrary arrest and conviction of journalists and opposition members, the blocking of social media and independent media platforms, the imposition of restrictions on social media platforms and two earthquakes that damaged communications infrastructure have all contributed to the low score of Turkey on the freedom scales.
According to the report Internet users have experienced an overall deterioration of their rights within the last decade, contributing to a broader crisis for democracy worldwide. There are three noteworthy trends in the report highlighting how state and nonstate actors in many countries have been exploiting opportunities created by the pandemic to form online narratives, censor critical speech and establish new systems of social control.
The report said political leaders used the pandemic as an excuse to limit access to information. Authorities often blocked independent news sites and arrested individuals on spurious charges of spreading false news. In many places it was state officials and their zealous supporters who actually disseminated false and misleading information with the aim of drowning out accurate content, distracting the public from ineffective policy responses and scapegoating certain ethnic and religious communities. In short, governments around the world failed in their obligation to promote a vibrant and reliable online public sphere.
In Turkey, the pandemic has become an opportunity for government loyalists to dehumanize minorities and vulnerable social groups. Minorities have not only been subject to police abuse but have been projected as the reason for the pandemic.
Globally, authorities cited the pandemic to justify expanded surveillance powers and the deployment of new technologies and the execution of new measures that were once seen as too intrusive. The public health crisis has created an opening for the digitization, collection and analysis of people’s most intimate data without adequate protections against abuses, Freedom House said.
Turkish police investigated 14,186 social media accounts in the first seven months of 2020, taking legal action against 6,743 of them on charges of spreading terrorist propaganda, inciting the public to hatred and enmity, instilling fear in and causing panic among the public or containing provocative content, Turkey’s Interior Ministry announced in a statement in late August.
Another trend is the gradual transformation of the Internet into islands of sovereignty with each government imposing its own Internet regulations in a manner that restricts the flow of information across national borders.
The Turkish Parliament recently enacted a new social media law that allows the government to assert more control over social media. New legislation regulating social media took effect on October 1, with tighter restrictions and control over platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, presenting potential risks for dissidents in the country.
With the new law, Internet platforms with more than 1 million daily active users are obliged to open offices in Turkey and to remove content deemed offensive within 48 hours based on local court decisions. The social media companies will also be required to store user data locally, raising privacy concerns as it means they will be providing prosecutors with user data when required.
Freedom House rates people’s access to political rights and civil liberties in 210 countries and territories through its annual Freedom in the World report. Individual freedoms — ranging from the right to vote to freedom of expression and equality before the law — can be affected by state or nonstate actors.