United Nations: The new social media bill will further undermine the right of people in Turkey to freedom of expression

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Liz Throssell in a press statement on Tuesday expressed concern over the moves by the Turkish authorities to introduce a new social media bill that would give the government powerful tools for asserting more control over the media landscape.

“The law, if adopted, would further undermine the right of people in Turkey to freedom of expression, to obtain information and to participate in public and political life. As well, it would further weaken platforms that are essential for independent journalism,” the statement read.

The bill to amend the law on Internet crimes was submitted on July 21 to the Turkish Parliament by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) at President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s request. The new regulation was adopted on July 24 by the parliament’s Justice Committee and was expected to be deliberated by the general assembly on Tuesday.

Under the draft bill, social media companies with more than 1 million connections a day would be required to have offices in Turkey. If the companies fail to comply, they would face steep fines and the possibility of having their bandwidth slashed to the point where people in Turkey will not have any meaningful access to their site.

According to the UN statement, “The wholesale blocking of websites is not compatible with the right to freedom of expression. The same is true for measures that render websites effectively inaccessible, such as deliberate limitations to available bandwidth.”

The law would also require that companies store all data of their Turkish customers within Turkey, undermining people’s right to communicate anonymously. Compliance with removal requests could also entail handing over the personal details of individual users if ordered to do so by a court.

The independent media is already under serious threat in Turkey, and these concerns have been exacerbated in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to figures provided by the Ministry of Interior, as of May 2020 at least 510 people had been detained for allegedly “baseless” and “provocative” social media posts about the pandemic and the government’s response to it.

Throssell also highlighted the importance of complying with the international human rights conventions to which Turkey is a party, saying: “We would like to recall that all limitations on the right to freedom of expression have to be in line with the requirements of Article 19(3) of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. Rather than seeking to increase powers of information control, governments should take all necessary measures to promote plurality of the media.”

Speaking about the draft bill, Amnesty International’s Turkey researcher Andrew Gardner said: “Today’s vote is the latest, and perhaps most brazen attack on free expression in Turkey. Journalists already spend years behind bars for their critical reporting and social media users have to police themselves in fear of offending the authorities.”

In a statement, Human Rights Watch also voiced similar concerns. According to Deputy Program Director Tom Porteous, “[In Turkey] social media is a lifeline for many people who use it to access news, so this law signals a new dark era of online censorship.”

Porteous said an “autocracy is being constructed” in Turkey “by silencing media and all critical voices.” He invited the social media companies to fight back, saying, “Social media companies should loudly and unequivocally call on Turkey to drop this law, and the EU should resolutely back this call.”

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