Deeply concerned about freedom of expression, Turkish journalists ring alarm bells

The draconian Internet law approved by President Abdullah Gül has caused serious concern among Turkish journalists as the country experiences one of the most serious democratic crises in its history. Here is a new report by Today’s Zaman:
“The new regulations … will simply rub more salt in the open wounds in Turkey,” journalist Yavuz Baydar said in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman. Baydar was sacked from the pro-government daily Sabah for his columns commenting on the Gezi Park protests and media freedom in Turkey.

Gül announced on Feb 18. via Twitter that he was going to approve the Internet law introduced by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party). By supporting his political rival, Gül not only raised the collective eyebrows of the Turkish nation but also deepened concerns about the state of the media and freedom of expression in Turkey.

Turkey already has strict Internet laws, under which more than 40,000 websites have been blocked, according to, which tracks access restriction. Turkish Internet legislation also contains a reference to an old law that stipulates a prison sentences for insulting the memory of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, much-loved first president of Turkey, which has previously led to temporary restrictions to YouTube.

“Needless to say, the new changes will only make the situation much worse, bringing Turkey in line with countries like China,” Baydar said.

The new Internet control law will provide the state-run Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) with the power to shut down websites with “inconvenient and objectionable content” — content that violates privacy — within four hours and without a court ruling. Fears abound, therefore, that the TİB’s new-found authority will tighten the government’s control over the Internet. The law also forces Internet providers to track and keep records of users’ activities, such as which websites have been accessed, for how long users visited those websites and with whom they have been in contact, for up to two years. These records will have to be made available to the authorities, which “brings reporting under tight control,” Doğan Akın, an editor of the Turkish news website T24, told Sunday’s Zaman by phone.

After objections were raised, Gül asked the government to amend certain problematic issues in the new legislation, but ultimately gave his stamp of approval. The president’s concerns over the two of the law’s articles led to the AK Party suggesting on Wednesday that Internet records will be provided to TİB only upon the demand of courts within the scope of criminal investigation or prosecution.

This has not satisfied critical voices, however. “Although steps have been taken to improve the law, it is not sufficient, as the keystone of the law [prohibiting before legal necessity is proven] is still there,” Akın claimed.

The new Internet control law will cede great power to the new TİB head, Cemaleddin Çelik, who was appointed to his post on Dec. 23 — a week after Dec. 17, a date which has proved to be a turning point in Turkish modern history. On that day, a major corruption investigation came to light, which resulted in the arrest of some of Erdoğan’s cabinet ministers’ sons and businessmen close to his inner circle. They were alleged to have been involved in illegal activities including money-laundering and gold-smuggling. Çelik, a former member of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT), is politically very close to Erdoğan.

Defenders of the new law agree with Erdoğan’s claims that the new Internet restrictions are aimed at protecting individual rights; critics, however, argue that the law is nothing more than an attack on freedom of expression and citizens’ right to access information.

A majority of the Turkish population, especially young people, are active users of the Internet and social media such as Twitter. The development of social media is considered to have played a prominent role in bringing about the arrival of democracy in some Middle Eastern countries in the wake of the Arab Spring. Social media can aid democracy by “delivering individual or collective voices that are merging around a single view, cause or mission,” says daily Taraf’s Amberin Zaman in a phone interview with Sunday’s Zaman. Zaman adds that “the detrimental implication [of the Internet law] is a sharp intervention into freedom of expression, censorship and, of course, [the introduction of] a legal practice that will drag Turkey backwards in terms of democracy.”

Erdoğan’s critics also emphasize the fact that the new legislation will be particularly effective at stopping new revelations emerging like those of the recent corruption scandal, which not only caused domestic turmoil but also cast a shadow on Turkey’s hope to be a model of democratic leadership in the Muslim world.

“The basic principle of the Internet law is to stop any means that might pave the way for the distribution of reports about the graft scandal and thus to protect the high-ranking people who are directly involved in the corruption allegations,” Akın said. A staunch supporter of individuals’ privacy, Akın stresses that a “violation of privacy cannot be decided by bureaucrat instead of a court.”

The Internet control law is a major blow to freedom of expression in Turkey, coming after the corruption probe which Erdoğan has dubbed a “coup attempt” by the “parallel state” — an expression used to refer to officials close to the Hizmet movement, a faith-based voluntary organization inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, with the mission of spreading religious tolerance in the world.

“Censorship is not coming to the Internet; freedoms aren’t being curtailed,” Erdoğan told lawmakers in his party in Parliament on Tuesday. “We’re only taking precautions against immorality, blackmail and threats.”

Amberin Zaman, who was also a sacked as a columnist from the newspaper HaberTürk due to her critical stance towards the Turkish government, is especially interested in the EU’s reaction after the law will be put into practice. The AK Party’s subsequent reaction will also be interesting, Zaman says, because it’s not easy to predict what politicizing impact the Internet law might have on Turkish youth.

The government “is directly intervening in their freedom in a sphere where they can freely express themselves. The Internet is like an oxygen tent and they are cutting it off.”

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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