The use of popular social networking and communication platforms such as Facebook, Skype, Tango, WhatsApp, Coco, Kakao, Falco, Coverme and TikTok may very well be considered evidence of terrorism in Turkey, documents obtained by Nordic Monitor have revealed.
According to the documents, the Çorum Police Department’s Anti-smuggling and Organized Crime Department detained a suspect identified as Ahmet Can on April 26, 2019 on terrorism-related charges. When he was interrogated at the order of the Çorum Public Prosecutor’s Office, the police asked him, among other things, if he had downloaded or ever used Tango, Viber, Coverme, TikTok, Crack, ByLock, Eagle, Coco, Falco or other networking and communication applications.
Turkey’s notoriously broad and ambiguous anti-terror legislation, which has been turned into a scourge on dissidents in the hands of the country’s overzealous police and prosecutors, is, to all appearances, susceptible to such an interpretation and misuse.
Can was accused of membership in an armed terrorist organization, providing finance thereto and disseminating terrorist propaganda, the usual charges Turkish authorities level against government critics, opponents and dissidents. Can was accused of affiliation with the Gülen movement, led by a scholar named Fethullah Gülen, who has been living in self-imposed exile in the US since 1999.
Gülen has been critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on a range of issues including his increasing authoritarianism, his aiding and abetting of jihadists in the Syrian civil war and his corrupt politics. Erdoğan’s government branded Gülen as a terrorist in 2014, immediately after major corruption investigations that were made public in December 2013 and that incriminated Erdoğan, his family members and political and business associates. He blamed Gülen for instigating the corruption probes, a claim that was denied by Gülen.
The police further asked Can whether he had taken part in or supported press meetings held by Gülen movement-affiliated NGOs aimed at protesting controversial practices of the Ministry of Education.
Another document, an indictment of 36 suspects drafted by public prosecutor Okan Bato, refers to the use of Skype, Tango and WhatsApp as a means of communication among Gülenists. According to the indictment, part of investigation case file No. 2015/64148, members of the Gülen movement preferred to use those online communication programs because they were affordable and encrypted.
Criminalizing communication and social networking tools and citing their use as terrorist activity, Turkey’s public prosecutors have investigated more than 500,000 dissidents and put more than 90,000 of them behind bars without taking pains to show how they could be equated with criminal acts and without further substantiating their claims. Although participating in press meetings to protest a controversial government practice and communicating over online communication platforms are legitimate exercises of freedom of assembly and speech, the Erdoğan government in Turkey differs on such rights and freedoms.
This circumstance has been highlighted by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which ruled on September 18, 2019, in a complaint lodged by two judges arrested on terrorism-related charges due to their mere use of ByLock, that their deprivation of liberty was arbitrary. According to the working group “use [of] the ByLock application … would have been merely an exercise of their freedom of expression.”
Turkey has refused to give effect to this decision. Statistics of the European Court of Human Rights show that Turkey is, with 356 violations, by far the top violator of freedom of expression in the 60-year history of the court. The second biggest violator, the Russian Federation, has violated this freedom in just 76 cases between 1959 and 2019.
Turkey has been tightening its grip on social media. People think that authorities are tapping into their emails or social media accounts, thus sparking fear and self-censorship among ordinary citizens. The Ministry of Interior stated that between January 1 and April 9, 2019 it examined 10,250 social media accounts and took legal action against more than 3,600 users who are accused of propagandizing or promoting terrorist organizations, inciting persons to enmity and hostility, or insulting state institutions. According to a US State Department report, “the government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority.”
After an abortive coup on July 15, 2016 President Erdoğan declared a state of emergency and began to rule the country through cabinet decrees. With these decrees the Turkish government has closed down hundreds of TV stations, periodicals, magazines and Internet websites. Prior to the declaration of the state of emergency, direct interference with media freedom had already reached an alarming level. In 2015 the government illegally took over the Koza İpek Media Group, and later the Feza Group, which owned Turkey’s largest circulating daily, Zaman. The authorities then employed other forceful or dubious means to foster a pro-government media –- the so-called pool media –- by using state resources.
According to the Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) recently released 2020 World Press Freedom Index in which Turkey was ranked 154th among 180 countries in terms of press freedom, Turkey is the world’s biggest jailer of professional journalists. “After the elimination of dozens of media outlets and the acquisition of Turkey’s biggest media group by a pro-government conglomerate, the authorities are tightening their grip on what little is left of pluralism – a handful of media outlets that are being harassed and marginalized,” RSF noted.
With the cabinet decrees issued during the two-year state of emergency the government dismissed more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors. The judicial ranks thus vacated were filled with neophytes and ruling party partisans who were turned into a scourge on dissidents at the hand of the government.