Coalition urges Turkey to cease online censorship on eve of elections

By Deniz Aydin and Peter Micek

On October 10th, Turkey suffered the deadliest terrorist attacks in its history. At least 99 people lost their lives at a peace rally organized in the capital city of Ankara. In response, the government imposed a media blackout on the incident. We fear this could be just a preview of what’s to come: parliamentary elections will be held on Sunday, November 1st, and that may spur more attempts by the government to restrict the free flow of information online.

To prevent further censorship, today a coalition of Turkish and international media, human rights organizations, and political groups have published an Open Letter to the Turkish Government demanding that it protect Turkish people’s right to freedom of expression during the elections. The letter underscores the fact that social media and independent media websites help to ensure access to information in Turkey, and asks the government to pledge not to block access to the internet or to specific online services.

On the eve of the elections, people in Turkey are facing stepped-up censorship, both online and offline, through internet throttling, attacks, raids, and court-ordered restrictions on publishing certain content. There have already been threats of shutdowns or outright bans of social media platforms. A deputy from AKP, the Justice and Development Party, openly stated, “Twitter could be blocked if required as a counter-terrorism precaution,” because according to the deputy, the company has a “tendency to do things like protecting a terrorist organization.”

Access to the internet during elections is essential in Turkey, where citizen journalism platforms serve as critical information sharing networks. But it’s more than just political expression that is at stake here. President Erdogan has demonstrated an increasing antipathy towards the internet, but as the international consensus behind the Global Goals for Sustainable Development recognizes, the internet can play a key role in eliminating poverty and building inclusive, sustainable societies. Turkey’s own democratic traditions also stand to flourish online with a more open and responsive governance. It is in this context that all eyes are focused on this weekend’s elections to see whether and how the people’s free expression rights will be protected online.

Rights at stake

People in Turkey have been subject to many different forms of censorship online.

Courts have been issuing gag orders to block media coverage of deadly bombings around the country, and in particular targeting Twitter, a platform that independent news organizations and citizen journalists have increasingly used since the Gezi protests of 2013. According to Twitter’s transparency report, of the 796 requests to remove or withhold content that the company received between January and July of 2015, no fewer than 477 were from Turkey. Following the deadlySuruc bombings on July 20, 2015, the government requested that a total of 171 URLs be removed, “104 of which were on Twitter.”   Since Twitter failed to comply with the order in under four hours, the time limit set by Turkey’s notorious “Internet Law,” Law No. 5651, the government briefly imposed a complete ban of the platform.

It’s difficult for people to track court orders to ban services or block content in Turkey because there is no official transparency or accountability mechanism for these orders. A volunteer-run website called Engelli Web (meaning Banned Web) compiles an index of all websites and online content banned in Turkey, which have surpassed 100,000 sites. Many are banned under the Internet Law cited above.

In the Open Letter to the Turkish Government published today, our coalition specifically recalls the 2012 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, which found that blanket bans of online platforms in Turkey violate the fundamental right to freedom of expression.

Throttling in action

The Internet Law in Turkey has “provided administrative authorities with wide authority over the Internet, freedom of expression, and access to information.” However, neither this authority over online content, nor the liabilities imposed on social networking companies, seems to satisfy the government. Following the tragic Ankara bombings, it appears likely that the government used throttling to block access to Twitter. On the day of the attacks, internet users in Turkey complained about their inability to access the social network, and local media cited this as evidence of throttling to slow down or deny access.

This claim is supported by the fact that the media was subsequently banned from covering the investigation of the suicide bomber in the attacks. Indeed, on Oct. 13th, a prominent lawyer filed a criminal complaint against the Presidency of Telecommunication and Communication and the national intelligence agency for preventing communication and thereby imposing de facto censorship.

Last year, the Constitutional Court in Turkey overruled the Presidency of Telecommunication and Communication’s blanket ban of Twitter “because it violated the freedom of expression protected under Article 26 of Turkey’s Constitution.”

We agree with the court, and we add that such bans also violate international human rights law. We hope that prior to and during the Turkish elections, the government will not implement any overbroad bans or shutdowns, as such practices deprive people of access to information and the free and open internet. The government should take heed of the Open Letter and protect the rights of Turkish people online.

We’ll continue to track and report on the situation. If you’d like to stay updated, we invite you to follow us on Twitter and Facebook.