Towards 1984? New Internet bill to further restrict freedom of information, sparks reactions

As Turkish Parliament prepares for a vote on a restrictive internet bill, here is a detailed report by Today’s Zaman on what its possible repercussions will be:

A recent government initiative to amend Law No. 5651 on the Internet via a new bill to allow the blocking of websites without a court order and mass surveillance of Internet users aims to hamper freedom of information, analysts agree.

The amendment to Law No. 5651 on cybercrime was introduced by ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputy Zeynep Karahan Uslu as part of an omnibus bill in early January.

Emrehan Halıcı, deputy chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), said despite all the criticisms, the government is rushing to bring these amendments into effect. “The CHP finds the bill unacceptable. I believe the public is closely following those efforts to restrict freedoms and will respond in the elections,” Halıcı noted in his comments to Sunday’s Zaman.

Law No. 5651, which regulates and supervises Internet content and was brought into effect in May 2007, was also criticized by the European Parliament (EP), which called for the abolishment of the law, saying it limits freedom of expression, restricts citizens’ right to access information and allows website bans of disproportionate scope and duration in a report on Turkey prepared by Dutch Christian Democrat and EP Rapporteur on Turkey Ria Oomen-Ruijten in 2012.

According to the planned amendments to Article 9 of Law No. 5651, the head of the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) will be able to block websites upon the order of the transportation, maritime affairs and communications minister without obtaining a court order.

Article 9 also states that natural or legal persons may apply to TİB with a request to block a website due to violations of privacy, and the proposed amendment neither introduces any audits of the TİB head’s decisions nor requires a court decision before blocking a website.

According to the proposed amendment to Article 9, webpages and video footage that violate individuals’ privacy will be blocked within four hours while the courts are expected to announce a verdict on such issues within 48 hours. Such a limited time is not sufficient for the courts to hand out just verdicts and does not allow defendants to use their right to object, analysts say.

The bill also includes a measure that allows for the recording of Internet users’ browsing histories and the storage of this information for up to two years. However, the protection of personal data was one of the most important promises of the government in the constitutional referendum of Sept. 12, 2010.

According to the proposed bill, Internet service providers will be fined while Internet access providers will be sentenced to prison if they do not remove content which is deemed to be illegal.

The bill also includes changes to Article 6, which requires all Internet service providers to become members of an association of Internet access providers which will be established in the future.

Expressing concerns about the limitations to freedoms with the Internet bill, Pınar Türenç, president of the Turkish Press Council, said the bill should not be voted on in a hurry but should instead be studied in detail.

“We have doubts about the timing of the bill as well. Why has this bill come onto the agenda at the same time as the graft investigation?” Türenç asked, referring to an ongoing corruption scandal which erupted on Dec. 17 in which four former Cabinet ministers are also allegedly involved.

Turkey’s tightening grip on the Internet has drawn reactions from numerous organizations around the world. Alev Yaman, a researcher at the PEN international writers association, expressed PEN’s concerns on the regressive amendments being proposed in Turkey to the already problematic Law No. 5651.

“Such unchecked power poses a substantial threat to the rights to privacy and freedom of expression, and is part of a worrying trend of the concentration of power within the hands of the executive in Turkey,” Yaman told Sunday’s Zaman.

Yaman added that under the new law, the government will have the power to censor or surveil the online activity of anyone in Turkey without judicial oversight or any form of independent checks and balances.

“PEN International calls on the authorities in Turkey to comprehensively review the legislation surrounding the Internet so that the fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of expression are fully respected in line with Turkey’s obligations under international law,” Yaman said.

Another criticism of the new Internet bill came from Reporters Without Borders (RSF). In remarks to Sunday’s Zaman, Johann Bihr, the head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk of the RSF, said, “The draconian Internet bill recently submitted to Parliament threatens to reinforce cyber censorship, government control of the Internet and surveillance of the public.”

RSF issued a report on Jan. 17 stating that it is very concerned about the proposed changes on the Internet bill that is to be debated by Parliament in Ankara in the coming days. It urged deputies to reject this “draconian bill.”

“Law 5651 needs overhauling to remove its repressive features and to guarantee respect for freedom of information, but Parliament is unfortunately moving in the opposite direction,” the RSF said. “Its adoption would be fraught with consequences for the fundamental freedoms of Internet users and the Turkish digital economy,” it added.

Underlining the government’s authoritarian method of ruling in Turkey with a special emphasis on the Gezi protests in the summer of 2013 and the government’s tactics to evade the political consequences of the corruption scandal by removing large numbers of the police and prosecutors involved in the investigations, the RSF said the government should realize that the solution does not lie in more censorship.

Turks, especially youths, have staged demonstrations warning the government to step back from its undemocratic attempts to silence dissent on the Internet under the watchwords of “Hands off my Internet” and “Stop censorship.”

Steven Ellis, a senior press freedom adviser for the International Press Institute (IPI), identified Law No. 5651 as already being problematic.

“Drastically shortening the time for websites to respond to complaints and removing an independent review of decisions to block websites would likely lead to an abuse of the law by those keen to arbitrarily block access to damaging information posted online,” Ellis said in comments to Sunday’s Zaman.

Ellis also noted that by increased fines for failing to remove content and potential mass surveillance of Internet users, these provisions would also likely lead to greater self-censorship by journalists and others who might otherwise air sensitive information about alleged corruption or other actions involving public figures.

“We fear that these amendments could be used to prevent necessary public scrutiny of such allegations and deprive Turkish people of the information they need to ensure accountability from their leaders, undermining the entire democratic system,” Ellis added.

Full report, here.

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About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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