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Turkey passes strict Internet law as PM Erdogan battles corruption leaks

The law allows the government to block websites and demand user data from service providers. With mainstream media tightly controlled, Turks increasingly depend on the Internet for news.

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People spend time surfing the internet in a cafe in Istanbul February 6, 2014. Turkey's parliament has approved a new set of legal amendments that will allow authorities to block web pages or websites without a court order.

Osman Orsal/Reuters

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Turkey’s Parliament forced through tight Internet restrictions last night that critics warn could lead to a dramatic rise in censorship.

A new set of legal amendments will allow authorities to block web pages or websites without a court order and force Internet service providers to store all user data for up to two years, supplying it to the government on demand.

It comes amid fears of deteriorating press freedom. Recently leaked phone recordings seemed to reveal Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan personally meddling in the coverage of a major private television channel.

The European Union, of which Turkey is a membership candidate, condemned the legislation, which needs to be signed by President Abdullah Gul before it comes into force. Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, have appealed to him to veto it, though he has seldom used this power in the past.

“This law is raising serious concerns here,” Peter Stano, spokesman for the European Commission, told Agence France-Presse. “The Turkish public deserves more information and more transparency, not more restrictions. The law needs to be revised in line with European standards.”

Mr. Erdogan’s government is battling an unending stream of corruption allegations that have shaken his administration ahead of municipal elections next month. The legislation is believed to be an attempt to curb the leaks that have fed the scandal. 

The latest in an almost daily sequence of embarrassing revelations is a recording of a phone conversation allegedly between Erdogan and Fatih Sarac, deputy chairman of Ciner Media Group, which runs the Haberturk TV station. In the phone call, recorded when Turkey was in the grip of anti-government protests last June, Erdogan berates Mr. Sarac for featuring comments from an opposition politician as a ticker at the bottom of the screen. The recording was posted on YouTube Tuesday.

In it, a profusely apologetic Sarac promises to remove the offending comments, which were a call for President Gul to intervene in the crisis.

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These kind of revelations have become a regular occurrence since Dec. 17, when police investigating corruption launched raids and detained members of Erdogan’s inner circle. The corruption charges and leaks are widely seen as part of a power struggle between the prime minister and a powerful Islamic movement inspired by Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Turkish imam. 

Erdogan has hit back by purging some 5,000 police officers and dozens of prosecutors and judges. Since then, however, more damaging material – presumed to be from the files of the dismissed investigators – has continued to appear online.

“The reason of the law is to prevent people from spreading news about these graft allegations,” says Kerem Altiparmak, a political science professor and specialist in Internet freedom at Ankara University.

As many as 40,000 websites are already banned under Turkey’s existing Internet laws, which have been widely criticized.

“What we have now is censorship,” says Mr. Altiparmak. “This law is something more – it’s just terrible.”

The amendments allow the government-appointed Telecom Communications Directorate broader powers to unilaterally block websites that "invade privacy" or "cause insult," bypassing the courts that currently decide on which websites are blocked.

Last year Turkey ranked No. 154 out of 179 in Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index. It is also the world’s top jailer of journalists, with some 40 behind bars. Most mainstream media organizations are owned by large conglomerates which either have close ties to the government or else soft-pedal their coverage to avoid reprisal against business interests.

In response, a growing number of Turks are seeking news from alternative sources. The country has the world’s highest proportion of Twitter users relative to its total Internet population, according to research last year by eMarketer.

The law came as Today's Zaman, a newspaper affiliated with Gulen’s movement, reported that one of its correspondents, Mahir Zeynalov, an Azeri citizen, was to be deported. The charges: “statements contrary to fact” made on his Twitter account. 

In one of two offending tweets, according to the newspaper, he posted a link to an article on its website reporting that police had refused to follow orders to arrest suspects in the corruption case, who included at least one with links to al-Qaeda, with the caption: "Turkish prosecutors order police to arrest al-Qaeda affiliates, Erdogan's appointed police chiefs refuse to comply."

The government claims to merely be protecting privacy and fighting libel.

“We are freer compared to many other countries and have freedom of the press,” said Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc during Wednesday’s parliamentary debate.


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