Turkey v. encryption: An attack on freedom of expression


Earlier this week, two foreign journalists for Vice working in southeastern Turkey were arrested, raising concerns about the journalists’ safety and security. In a dark reminder of the “Crypto Wars” of the 1990s, a Turkish official stated yesterday that the main reason that these journalists were detained is that they use encryption. This morning, the news surfaced that the journalists have been released and are free to leave the country, although the charges against them have not been dropped. A local translator who had been working with them remains in custody.


This incident raises serious issues for digital rights and digital security, and could cause a powerful chilling effect for freedom of expression  not just in Turkey, but in other conflict-prone regions around the world.

Information controls in times of instability

Turkey shares borders with both Syria and Iraq, and is affected by the violence and chaos caused by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in multiple ways, such as by the refugee crisis and problems with border security. At the same time, the country faces complex internal dynamics such as re-intensifying violence by  and against  the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the failure to form a coalition government following the June elections, which led to the re-run of elections in November.

Is censorship in Turkey ratcheting up?

Over the years and even now, the Turkish press has faced government intimidation, both at the journalist and media mogul levels, evidently for reasons such as political manipulation or economic rent. However, the efforts of government censors, including Turkish officials’ harsh disapproving comments about foreign news outlets, appear to have intensified over the past few months. Throughout the summer, there were several instances when local news agencies were censored online, and the government also requested that Twitter accounts of journalists reporting from the conflict-prone region be withheld.

However, this incident is the first time in 15 years that foreign journalists have been detained on charges of aiding a terrorist organization. As eloquently stated in an open letter by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), journalists are vitally important because they have been providing “badly needed coverage of current events in southeastern Turkey, which are of interest not only to domestic but also to international audiences.”

Turkey is a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights as well as an E.U. candidate country, yet it has broad and vaguely written anti-terror laws and even specific gag orders that directly limit journalists’ ability to cover these sensitive issues. Journalists in Turkey are exposed to significant legal liabilities, even to the possibility of terrorism charges.

Encryption is not a crime

With this incident, it appears that using encryption is on the Turkish government’s list of no-nos for journalists. In an Al Jazeera article, an anonymous Turkish official stated that, “The main issue seems to be that the fixer uses a complex encryption system on his personal computer that a lot of ISIL militants also utilize for strategic communications.”

The pro-government leaning Sabah newspaper went further, reporting that the encryption software found on one of the journalists’ computer was of “military grade,” and has “contents he has refused to decrypt for official review.”

Other journalists in Turkey opposed and ridiculed this “military grade” claim, since using such encryption software is common practice for journalists. Notably, it is also deemed highly advisable by human rights experts around the world.

Most recently, David Kaye, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, has asserted that “encryption and anonymity on the internet are necessary for the advancement of human rights.” The Special Rapporteur further observes that “journalists, researchers, lawyers and civil society rely on encryption and anonymity to shield themselves (and their sources, clients, and partners) from surveillance and harassment,” and recommends that “legislation and regulations protecting human rights defenders and journalists should also include provisions enabling access and providing support to use the technologies to secure their communications.”

As a country that has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Turkey is obliged to protect the rights to privacy and freedom of expression, and should heed this expert advice.

Arbitrary detention of journalists must end

Turkey is among the countries tracked by the CPJ in its 2014 prison census for journalists. The arbitrary detention of journalists must end. Not only do these arrests restrict the reporters’ liberty, they are also an attack on the human right to freedom of expression  including access to information for the global audience. Instead of restricting the use of digital security tools such as encryption, governments should promote them as fundamental for the enjoyment of human rights online.

At our inaugural Crypto Summit in Washington, D.C., Alan Davidson from the U.S. Dept. of Commerce stated that, given the growing challenge of ensuring security on the internet, “encryption remains even more essential to protecting safety and commerce online.”

We are deeply concerned about the safety of journalists in Turkey and across the globe. As Joseph Cox writes in an insightful and informative blog post on the situation in Turkey, “Rather than treating the security of journalists in two different domains: one focusing solely on digital security, and another on physical security, it is obvious that the two have to be merged together. Because in countries like Turkey, they are one and the same thing.”

It appears that journalists and other internet users in Turkey are more at risk than ever. We hope that the arrest of journalists for protecting themselves online is not just the tip of the iceberg in a campaign against encryption and user rights. If so, we’re prepared to fight back every step of the way.

Photo credit: Sasha Maksymenko