Turkey’s controversial internet bill fuels protests

On Thursday 13 February, at least 12 protesters were arrested in Ankara when marching to parliament. Nearly 2,000 people were demonstrating against a bill tightening control of the internet. The protests turned violent as police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd.This was not the first round of protests: immediately after parliament approved the controversial bill on 16 January, people went to the street in Istanbul and Ankara. In Istanbul, the riot police then also took action after some protesters used firebombs. With plastic bullets, tear gas and water cannons, they tried to control the protesters.

The bill caused outrage as it would allow Turkey's telecommunications authority to block websites or remove content that violates privacy without a court decision. It could also force service providers to keep Internet users' data for two years. Web pages that are deemed "insulting" could be blocked as well after this bill is put into force. In May 2011, thousands of people in more than 30 cities around Turkey had already taken to the streets to protest a new system of filtering the Internet that opponents consider censorship. This new bill would be another hit to the freedom of expression in Turkey, protesters claim.  

Government dismisses censorship claims
Transport and Communication Minister Lütfi Elvan dismissed the “censorship” accusations, arguing similar regulations exist in many Western countries. He also assured that pages will be blocked only when there is a violation of privacy. PM Erdoğan rejected criticism of the new curbs, saying the new regulations did not impose any censorship at all on the Internet but would conversely make it safer and freer. Critics say the new law is an attempt by Erdoğan to stifle dissent and stop evidence of high-level corruption being seen online. He already became discredited when he admitted that he had called a media executive at the height of the Gezi protests to order the removal of content in the news, days after an alleged phone transcript of the exchange was leaked online. Following the leak, the editor-in-chief of the media group’s daily, Fatih Altaylı, made public “instructions rained down on the media every day.”

Turkey's opposition and several rights groups urge President Abdullah Gul not to approve the bill. From 10 February, Gul has 15 days to sign the bill before it comes into force.

International reactions
The European Union has expressed concerns over Turkey’s new Internet bill, following a meeting with Turkish ministers in Brussels in the beginning of this week. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle met with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and EU Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu for political dialogue and discussed the recent developments, including the Internet law. Last week, European Parliament President Martin Schulz called the moves a “step back into an already suffocating environment for media freedom,” while the US also expressed misgivings.

‘Orwellian Territory’
Turkish award-winning journalist Yavuz Baydar speaks of Turkey entering ‘Orwellian territory’ as the bill brings the country much closer to China and Iran regarding censorship. He argues that Turkey so far has censored more than 30,000 websites, most of which on arbitrary grounds. According to Baydar, President Gul’s powers are limited. He may veto the bill, but if the Parliament "insists" and after another vote sends it back to him in the same format, he has little option but to ratify it.

Turkey: top jailor of journalists
The freedom of expression has been under pressure for years in Turkey. It already was the top jailor of journalists in the world. The Committe to Protect Journalists (CPJ) announced its survey that  highlighted the unprecedented number of reporters, editors and columnists who have been sacked or forced to quit after the protests over the demolition of trees in a central Istanbul park that spread across the nation last summer.

At least 22 journalists were fired and 37 were forced to quit in connection with their coverage of the anti-government resistance in Gezi Park in June, according to the Turkish Union of Journalists, slamming the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) policy toward the media over its 11 years of rule. In the World Press Freedom Index, created by Reporters Without Borders, Turkey ranked 154th out of 180 countries, before Egypt and China, but behind Afghanistan and Irak.

Sources: Al Jazeera I, NY Times, Hurriyet Daily I, Hurriyet Daily II, Good Morning Turkey, Al Jazeera II, Hurritet Daily III
Picture: Internet protests in Turkey, May 2011. Taken by Primary Source

By Merel Berkelmans

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