Protesters took to the streets in Istanbul last Saturday evening to voice their concerns over the new Internet law passed by the Turkish parliament just two days earlier. As is de rigeur in Turkey, the police dealt harshly with the protesters, firing teargas and water cannon, with skirmishes continuing well into the night. The government’s violent suppression of the protesters actually serves as an important metaphor for the way the Turkish government is using extreme means to silence any type of dissent, and as it does so, it is chiseling away at the state’s own democratic institutions.
The controversial Internet law has already been condemned both inside and outside of Turkey, including statements made by the European Union and the United States. The new law, once instituted, will allow the head of a government agency, the Telecommunications Directorate, to block websites at its own discretion, bypassing the currently needed court order. Furthermore, it will require Internet providers to store users’ browser information for two years and to forfeit it upon request, which is a clear invasion of user privacy. In essence, it resembles an extreme case of legalized state surveillance - an out-in-the-open Turkish NSA.
Despite the fact that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that the new law does not “…impose any censorship at all,” and will make surfing the net, “safer and freer,” the fears of Turkish Internet users are clearly not unfounded. According to a recent report by the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, Turkey ranks only second after China in blocking Internet sites. With around 40,000 sitescurrently blocked, the Committee to Protect Journalists has used the term “internet authoritarianism,” to describe the current state of affairs.
In other words, while we are speaking about the new Internet law, the public debate should really be on how to bring more freedom to an already censored internet that blocks such topics as Darwinism, Kurdish and political left news sites, and even gay-dating sites.
For many, the new Internet law is perceived as another attempt by Erdogan to usurp greater power, as he continues his battle against the Gulen movement, followers of the influential Turkish religious preacher Fethullah Gulen, who is in self-imposed exile in the United States. For Erdogan, the Gulen movement is a “parallel state,” which attempted to overthrow his government by masterminding last December’s graft investigation, uncovering massive corruption at the highest level of his government. Having a greater control over the Internet could be used against the Gulenists, the “illegal gang within the state,” but also against groups similar to the Gezi protesters, who were also accused of plotting a coup against the state.
Fears for the future of the Internet are also strengthened by the fact that not only does Turkey hold the world record for jailing journalists, but the Turkish government has stepped up its struggle against dissent in the press. Last Friday, the journalist Mahir Zeynalov was deported; an Azerbaijani national, who is married to a Turkish citizen, Zeynalov wrote for Todays Zaman, a newspaper affiliated with the Gulen movement. While his deportation is certainly related to his sharp criticism of the government, the official charge against him was “posting tweets against high-level state officials.” Erdogan recently opened a criminal court caseagainst Zeynalov alleging defamatory tweets.
If this was not enough, during the last few days numerous secret tapes have emerged revealing phone conversations between Erdogan and Fatih Sarac, an executive at Haberturk, a private television news agency. So far, four sets of recordings have been released, and in two of them the Turkish prime minister directly interferes in the content of news stories; the first conversation took place during the opening days of the Gezi protests, when Erdogan called Sarac from Morocco to demand the removal of a critical comment by an opposition leader in their newsfeed; in another, Erdogan complains to Sarac about a story criticizing state healthcare; three staff members were allegedly fired for submitting the story.
While the legal admissibility of these tapes is in question, there is no doubt they serve as yet as another troubling sign about the state of Turkey’s democracy. In most democratic systems, such blatant manipulation of the press would shake a government to its core, most likely leading to its leader’s resignation.
Ironically, it is in the emergence of the taped conversations, and other wire-taps of Prime Minister Erdogan and his family members, that we can find an analogy with the recent Internet law. There is no doubt that Erdogan is certainly right to be angered that he and his family have been secretly recorded. How much more so should ordinary Turkish users of the Internet be angered at being subjected to surveillance without recourse.
For now, the Turkish public is looking towards Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, hoping that he will veto the new internet bill and send it back to the parliament for reconsideration, together with a strong message to Erdogan that a red line has been crossed. There is no doubt that if he does so, it will be a brave move on his behalf. However, this too could be too little, too late; since the graft-investigation came to light last December, Gul has done little to stop Erdogan from continuing to monopolize power. In this context, the Internet law seems just like another piece of the puzzle in a greater question concerning the future of the rule of law in Turkey and the preservation of its democratic institutions.
*This article appeared originally in Haaretz on Feb 11, 2014; I am placing the entire text here since due to the paywall sometimes the link is blocked