Free speech under threat in Turkey

photo credit:  Michael Fleshman

photo credit: Michael Fleshman

A new law limiting Internet freedom in Turkey was ratified by President Abdullah Gul on the 18th February. The government claims the law will make the Internet more safe and free, but the people are not convinced and protestors are taking to the streets to defend free speech online.

The new law will allow authorities to block websites for privacy violations without a court decision. It further forces Internet providers to store data on users for two years and to make it fully available to the authorities. Prime Minister Erdogan denies accusations of censorship, claiming that the legislation will make the Internet a safer, freer space. “Censorship is not coming to the Internet, freedoms aren’t being curtailed,” he told lawmakers from his party. “We’re only taking precautions against immorality, blackmail and threats.”

However, the opposition believes the government is trying to stifle the corruption scandal that broke in December last year. In an audio file leaked online, Erdogan is said to be overheard instructing his son Bilal to hide millions of euros in cash. The Prime Minister accused prosecutors of trying to undermine him with the bribery inquiry that followed, and the issue has caused heated debate. In February of this year, after a bloody fistfight in the Turkish parliament, another controversial law was passed, this time giving the justice ministry greater say in the appointment of judges and prosecutors.

The Turkish people aren’t buying Erdogan’s argument, and protests are being fought with water cannons and tear gas. Internet access in Turkey is already restricted and thousands of websites are blocked, including gay dating sites and news portals considered favourable to Kurdish militants; in Google’s report for the first half of 2013, Turkey comes in as the number one country seeking to excise content. After both Facebook and Twitter were widely used by anti-government protestors to spread information during demonstrations in Taksim Square last year the Prime Minister has openly condemned social media as “the worst menace to society.”

Campaigners against the law hoped that President Abdullah Gul, who is an avid Twitter enthusiast with over 4.3 million followers, would prevent it being ratified. But the law was signed on the 18th of February. But the law was signed on the 18th of February, and soon after the President was targeted by the hashtag campaign #UnfollowAbdullahGul; he lost nearly 100,000 followers within one day.

Turkey is already the biggest jailer of journalists in the world according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and many are worried about what the new law will mean for the press. The EU has criticized it as a step back for media freedom in the country, and the human rights group Freedom House warns that Prime Minister Erdogan’s government is employing “a variety of strong-arm tactics to suppress the media’s proper role as a check on power.”

Neither the government nor the opposition seem to appreciate the irony in the fact that the Turkish government wishes to defend its citizens’ online privacy by gaining unrestricted access to users’ browsing history.

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