Turkey attempts to police online expression
Arrests and indictments tied to activities on social media platforms have increased in recent months, raising fears regarding freedom of expression.
By Anna Wood for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 03/07/12
A year after demonstrators took to the streets in a series of protests against proposed internet government filters, the justice system has begun targeting individuals -- some of them well-known -- for online activities of an alleged criminal nature.
Activists and social media users have been highly critical of the government's attempts to control the internet. [Reuters]
Turkey has more than 32 million Facebook and nearly 4 million Twitter users. [Reuters]
Several protests against internet censorship rocked the country last year. [Reuters]
"All of a sudden, social media activities that at first glance appear legally difficult to associate with accusations like 'membership in a terrorist organisation' or 'insulting values and beliefs' have started to be considered 'evidence' for the attribution of crime," Ozgur Uckan, professor of communications and information economy at Bilgi University, told SES Türkiye.
The accused include Fazil Say, an internationally acclaimed pianist and composer who has been accused of "publicly insulting the religious values of a segment of the population" via comments on Twitter.
Also accused are two mayors from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), who, along with others, have been arrested for Facebook activity that prosecutors claim constitutes membership in a terrorist organisation.
An indictment against youths accused of being members of the hacking network Redhack also is notable because it characterises the group as an "armed terrorist organisation."
The social media cases have onlookers concerned about the future of freedom of expression.
"Subjecting opinions expressed on social media to investigation creates a serious threat to freedom of expression," Husnu Ondul, the former head of Turkey's Human Rights Foundation, told SES Türkiye.
Ondul views the government approach to social media as part of a larger justice problem that includes the illegitimate closure of a vast number of websites. "Turkey's justice system doesn't approach freedom of expression as a human right," he said.
According to Ondul, five different articles in the law related to online publications, "are articles that deny freedoms and are problematic in terms of clarity, sufficient openness, foresight, precision, and meeting the criteria for the rule of law."
In addition, Ondul said, "Articles that are thought to provide grounds for preventing access exist in nine separate laws."
The effect that these highly publicised trials and arrests will have on the Turkish public is an issue of concern for many observers. "The investigations and prosecutions that spring from the state's centralised, security-based approach will cause people to veer towards auto-censorship," Ondul said.
"People have absolutely already started behaving more carefully about what they share," Uckan told SES Türkiye, and added, "People are afraid, and this is completely natural."
Anxiety about internet users' potential auto-censorship is reminiscent of similar concerns regarding Turkish journalists in the wake of enough arrests to merit Turkey the ranking of 148 out of 172 countries in the 2011-2012 World Press Freedom Index.
Burak Tekin, an online political commentator and founder of the blog Komunal Iskembe, is convinced that issues of auto-censorship will ultimately affect members of the mainstream media far more than they will social media users. He has yet to observe any change in his own online behaviour, or in that of politically active people he follows.
"I don't believe that social media users in Turkey will be able to say, 'I'm scared; it would be best if I kept quiet,'" Tekin told SES Türkiye, and added, "It's impossible to be interested in Turkey and not talk about politics."
Were the arrests and investigations to become more widespread, however, Tekin acknowledged that things might change for social media users.
A more pressing issue in his view is the way expressions of opposition will be modified as a reaction to government oppression.
"When you sue people, when you limit freedom of expression, maybe you're not particularly reducing the number of people talking, but you are changing the topics being discussed and the ways in which they're discussed," Tekin said. "You're preventing people from taking some topics seriously, or you're even normalising the issues that provoke reactions."
Some see the current arrests and interrogations as a reflection of the government's anxiety regarding online organisation via social media, the populist power of which was clarified in the wider region during last year's Arab Spring.
"We know how long the administration has been trying to rein in social media," Uckan said, noting that Erdogan's government has been plagued by the fact that every misstep has been broadcast and criticised openly online.
Unable to prevent such activity entirely without enacting bans that the public would never stomach, the government may instead be trying to control online behaviour through intimidation.
"To be frank, I think this situation is a planned scare tactic of the government and police forces," Uckan said.
Ondul said that such issues threaten the integrity of the Turkish legal system. "These legal arrangements and judicial practices conflict with the rule of law and the principle of democracy."