New media laws increasing internet censorship in Turkey?

New media laws increasing internet censorship in Turkey?

Since Dec. 17, Turkey’s political agenda has been dominated by the corruption cases. Within this political atmosphere, Act 5651 for the regulation of web content is being revised in the framework of an omnibus bill prepared by the Ministry of Family and Social Policy. This draft bill is criticized for paving the way for increased control of online content.

Freedom of speech is already restricted in Turkey in many ways through bans, arrests of journalists and alleged pressure by politicians. A report by a committee to protect journalists defines Turkey as the “world’s leading jailer of journalists” in 2013. In the same year, Turkey ranked 154 out of 179 countries in the Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders.

Given these limitations in the mainstream media – which is also subject to problematic ownership structures – the internet is seen as an alternative channel for information. There is skepticism about the mainstream mass media’s ability to be objective, which became more evident during the Gezi Park protests in June 2013 as TV channels were protested for not reporting on the events. Konda’s research shows that 77.6 percent of the protestors were informed through the Internet, which is not surprising since Turkey is among the five top countries among Facebook and Twitter users around the world.

The internet in Turkey has not been a free space either. The existing law from May 2007 was found incompatible with freedom of speech in the European Human Rights Court in 2012. Vague definitions of crimes in the law such as defamation of Atatürk paved the way for the ban of many Kurdish news websites and also YouTube between 2007 and 2010. Google reported that Turkey’s requests for the removal of content have been increasing rapidly in the last years.

The draft bill adds new terms to the existing law that could lead to more problematic decisions about online content. Up to now, citizens claiming their privacy is violated had to contact the website administrators first and then wait for 2 days until they could go to court. After a trial process, courts can decide to remove the content or block websites. With the new law, individuals can directly go to court.

The courts will be able to decide about the removal of web content or the blocking of websites within 24 hours without a regular trial. In the cases of privacy violation, TİB will be able to directly block websites. This new process is problematic in the sense that it (i) doesn’t allow for an in-depth investigation (ii) paves way for arbitrary decisions by government authorities.

In addition, the new law raises the fines for not removing the content as requested by the court and this might consolidate self-censorship by the web providers. When a website refuses to remove the content within 72 hours, it will be blocked by TİB. The law also allows URL-based blocking of websites and the users will not be able to access these by changing their DNS settings. Furthermore, the already unclear list of crimes will now include hate crimes that are not defined in a concrete framework, thus, leading to subjective sentences. With the new law, all web hosting services will be obliged to be members of an association, which will be a mediator between TİB and the hosting services.

Freedom of speech does not mean that defamation, violation of privacy or sexual abuse on the internet should be tolerated. Regulation of web content is necessary in this sense. However, the draft goes beyond the protection of privacy and includes vague crime definitions. While the content of the law is important, how the law is applied, is even more critical. Activist organizations like the Pirate Party and Alternative Informatics Association, academics, journalists and the business organization TÜSİAD already raised concerns about the implications of the draft bill. Given the rather disappointing reports on media freedom in Turkey, the concerns about the new law is being used as an instrument to censor content seem well-grounded. Such an important law should be discussed with academics, activists and jurists before legislation to improve the situation, rather than to worsen it.

Dr. Çiğdem Bozdağ is Mercator-IPC Fellow at the Istanbul Policy Center of Sabanci University