Not Google or Facebook but states remain the biggest threat to free speech

Not Google or Facebook but states remain the biggest threat to free speech

Earlier this month, as I prepared myself for a retinal scan to enter a notorious prison in Istanbul, my mind wandered beyond freedom of press to equally important areas for the media and all of us, such as privacy rights, network security, governments, Big Tech, advertisers and concentration of power.

The prison is notorious not because of its physical conditions but because it held dozens of journalists in the past few years, including three from daily Cumhuriyet: International Press Institute (IPI) National Committee chairman Kadri Gürsel and IPI members Ahmet Şık and Murat Sabuncu.

Five days after my prison visit as IPI’s National Committee deputy chair, the court rejected once again the demand of the three journalists and Cumhuriyet CEO Akın Atalay to be released. 

When another trial session is held today, Gürsel, Sabuncu and Atalay would be under arrest for 330 days and Şık for 267 days. For over 300 days, we were not allowed to visit them in prison.

Independent monitors from Turkey and abroad unequivocally express that the charges are politically motivated. In a farcical way and with no real evidence but in their newspaper headlines, opinion columns and news reports, the defendants are accused of aiding terror organizations, the Turkish government’s ally-turned-nemesis Gülen movement and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Şık was once arrested by Gülenist law enforcement officials for critically reporting on the movement’s activities, and Gürsel, who has also always been critical of the Gülenists, was once even kidnapped by PKK militants! So, as IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis said before the previous hearing, “This case is about criminalizing journalism. It’s about punishing those who speak out. 

And if it works here today in this week, they will do it again, again, and again.”

In my Turkish columns on daily Hürriyet, I usually wrote about two main topics: Freedom of press and technological transformation that brings about the new media. 

As I looked into a mirror to scan my retina to enter the Silivri prison earlier this month, these two issues were intertwined in my mind. I thought about some recent headlines that represented a huge backlash against Big Tech:

* The Guardian: Facebook’s war on free will  

* Washington Post: Google is coming after critics in academia and journalism. It’s time to stop them  

* The Guardian: We need to nationalize Google, Facebook and Amazon

* And most recently, Netflix and Microsoft, too, are accused of undermining citizens’ rights in their “greedy” drive

Since 2013, I’ve been arguing in my Turkish column that legacy media companies, who produce most of the journalistic content that serves public interest, should be in closer dialogue with digital platforms to get a fair share and stop the ongoing “theft” of their hard work online. 

I was also one of the first Turkish journalists who pointed at the emerging threat of troll armies and fake news on social media.

Still, at Silivri prison, I felt that the powerhouse, which scanned my retina, has a more dangerous potential to society than Apple’s Face ID, Google’s AI or Facebook’s algorithm.

Even in our age of technopoly, states remain to be the biggest threat to democracy. We see it in action nowadays. “Now, I wish I could tell you we’re going to be able to stop all interference, but that wouldn’t be realistic. 

There will always be bad people in the world, and we can’t prevent all governments from all interference. 
But we can make it harder. We can make it a lot harder. And that’s what we’re going to do,” Mark Zuckerberg recently announced amid public pressure.

The Cumhuriyet case also triggered a huge public outcry, but the Turkish government did not respond as Zuckerberg did. Instead, we saw more arrests and even a harsher rhetoric against

Hopefully, by releasing journalists from that technologically secured prison, our state can finally send a positive message about democracy, perhaps with the words Zuckerberg used in 2006 amid the first public backlash against Facebook over its adoption of News Feed: “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you.”