Internet Freedom Report 2013 – Turkey: Partly Free and in Decline

(click to see the original full report)


Looking at the level of development in communication technologies and means in the world, one can say that one of the primary major problems in terms of democracy that states and governments face is surveillance and censorship. This is a problem that is linked to every other problem that we see in the social, economic and political spheres of any society. Solutions always require communication. And censorship, or causing self-censorship through surveillance, delays all solutions. The primary prerequisite for a strong society is free individuals. In order for free individuals to be able to form a strong society in today’s world, two crucial elements need to be achieved: a culture of respect and tolerance and a transparent state.

It is possible to look at the level of social and cultural development for improvement as they serve as a reflection of how state governance is a core element for political culture too. The United Nations’ Human Development Index is a comprehensive source of this information, revealing many aspects of human development as well as giving an opinion on states’ performance in enabling their citizens. According to the HDI 2013 report, Turkey performs poorly. Despite her presence in G20 due to her prospering economic growth (as opposed to development rates), Turkey scores 90th among over 200 states in the HDI report.

In the HDI report where equality among individuals, gender equality, and economic freedoms make up the core of the evaluation, communication holds a very significant position. Communication as one of the foundations of economic life, today translates best into Internet and digital communication. Looking at the Freedom House report on “Freedom on the Net 2013,” Turkey once again scores at a very unfortunate level, ranking 38th among 60 states, listed as “partly free” and among former Communist states, newly liberalized dictatorships, and other authoritarian non-democratic states.

Major Events Not Included in Report – Yet

The report criticizes all the misapplications and limitations in subject countries, and also reveals the details on the handicaps of the Turkish approach to liberties, freedoms and rights concerning Internet and cyber-governance. The outcome of the report makes many conclusions regarding all three main sub-headlines of the index – obstacles to access, limits on content and, violations of user rights. It is also important to note that the report only covers the period between May 1st, 2012 and April 30th, 2013 and leaves out all the injustices and unfortunate practices starting with the May 1st protests, the Reyhanli terrorist attacks, and especially the Gezi Park riots as well as many other crackdowns that have been occurring since then. A few statements by state officials have been referred to in the report although they are not included in the rankings as effective.

Before evaluating the report, it might be useful to remember what has been said concerning the social media and Internet freedoms during the Gezi Park protests. The vice-Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, had said “We could have pulled the plug on the  Internet, but we did not,” revealing the attitude of the Turkish government regarding “handing out democratic rights.” Only a short while after his statements, the Prime Minister himself, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared social media a menace to society and the root of all the troubles, saying that in his assessment the people were organizing plots against the government and protests and riots to topple his reign. Regarding this suspicion over the conspiracy theories, the Minister of Transport, Maritime and Communication, Binali Yildirim, said in a press statement: “The Turkish government is in close cooperation with Facebook and we are hoping to see the same initiative and good will from Twitter as well; we have asked for user details and expect their cooperation regarding these crimes soon.” It is also important to note that several unlawful arrests had been made during the riots, as people were detained from their homes in dawn raids, accused of tweeting about the events. While the social media, the Internet and digital use of freedom of speech was looked down upon by the government only a few months ago, just recently the governing AKP declared that they have now formed a digital squad of 6,000 social-media experts to “tell the real version of the social events in Turkey,” meaning manipulating the digital agenda on social-media platforms. In the light of these statements and practices, Turkey is likely to fall in the rankings of the Freedom on the Net Report in 2014.

Shortcomings in Turkey

The report refers to practical shortcomings of the infrastructure and insufficiency of development in Turkey. The report rightly notes the practical monopoly that is a drag on Turkey’s digitalization, slowing down digital development and sustaining control over communication via the state-owned telecoms monopoly. Legally in the telecoms sector, multiple companies can invest and provide service, yet practical problems make it difficult. The Internet penetration level still is trying to pass the 50% mark and the slow growth can be attributed to the telecoms monopoly, which also can be pointed to as the main reason for high prices for rather low connection speeds. However, infrastructure insufficiencies are not only limited to the telecoms sector. Unfortunately electricity supply is also a major problem in Turkey. Especially in regions far from economically more developed areas, people suffer from long periods of power failures, which is a more comprehensive obstacle to communication than high telecoms prices.

Obstacles to Access, Violation of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights had found Turkey in violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights regarding free access to Google Sites. Article 10 states that every individual has a right to hold opinions and express them without any limitations. Censorship and blocking access to host sites is in violation of this right by limiting one of the most commonly used methods of expressing opinions in our age: writing blogs. Blocking access not only limits individuals’ right to express their opinions freely, but also their access to information, since news portals and “citizen journalism platforms” also get blocked.

The report does not include the events of the post-May 1 period in 2013, yet notes the broadcast ban on the Reyhanli terrorist attacks in mid-May, which was the worst and deadliest terrorist attack in Turkish history. The Socialist-Marxist hackers’ group RedHack had revealed secret files regarding these attacks in a whistleblower fashion, in response to which the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs had demanded blockage of the cloud storage portal DropBox, through which RedHack had distributed the files and which is a major cloud solution for many small and mid-sized investors in Turkey.

One other obstacle to access is the infamous national filtering system put in place by the Telecommunications Communication Presidency (TIB). TIB had revealed the statistics of banned Web sites in Turkey in a yearly report until 2009, and since then has refused to give any further information. According to the latest data, only 21% of all the blocked domains were banned through court order and 79% of them were banned by decision of a TIB committee. Moreover, an Ankara court had ruled that the hidden information regarding the statistics about bans were not in the range of “right to information” in a transparent state and TIB did not have a responsibility to make state decisions accessible to society. Another aspect of the report that refers to TIB is the arbitrariness of the filtering system; with the child filter installed it is still possible to come across harmful content, whereas all pro-evolutionary biology portals, and especially the personal website of  Richard Dawkins, were blocked, as well as ethnic minorities’ news portals.

There are also suspicions regarding the Child and Family Profiles Criteria Working Committee, which was established to solve problems regarding mass filtering. As the report notes, the committee consists of TIB and BTK representatives, who are all appointed by the government, and experts chosen by the Family and Social Policies Ministry. The following is the infamous “Law No. 5651” which is used basically for censorship purposes.

Dated 26/09/2004 and no: 5237 of the Turkish Penal Code

guidance to suicide (Article 84),

sexual harassment of children (Article 103),

facilitating narcotic substances (Article 190),

facilitating obtaining unhealthy/harmful materials (Article 194),

obscenity (Article 226),

prostitution (Article 227),

supplying place and opportunity for gambling (Article 228) crimes.

Among these, obscenity is the one used the most as an excuse to ban Web sites and block access from Turkey. It might be useful to mention the fact that sexual content is not illegal, however with the pretence of protecting children in the online environment, most sexual content (visual or textual) gets banned. In addition to this fact, it is also important to refer to TIB’s very own report stating that every minute at least two million computers are connected to an online porn portal from Turkey (out of a maximum of 30 million users). Moreover, the statistics regarding online sexual content concern the search results; Turkey ranks eight highest in searching for the word “sex” online, while being the top country searching for “porn,” and, most unfortunate, third highest in searching for “child porn.”

What these statistics show is the inefficiency of censorship and surveillance in “solving”  any kind of cultural problem. The fact that Turkey has been in climbing in the ranks of searches for porn and sexual content in the world must be proof of something. As searching for child porn is a globally bleeding wound, blocking access or even censoring the results has not slowed the trend down and did not result in a change in online manners of online pedophiles. The major problem regarding Turkey’s approach to censorship is the fact that what is regarded as criminal or “immoral” is decided by widely diverse criteria, and moral oppression against society is a prevalent attitude.

Limits on Content

Apart from the blocking access to Web portals, another major issue referred to in the report is intervention into content. According to the report, many news portals, Web sites, and blogs relating to ethnic/religious minorities, sexual orientation or political opinions are intervened against. These practices, however are unlawful according to international agreements and conventions, cause a trend toward self-censorship, and discourage people from expressing their opinion, laying the foundations of an “empire of fear.”

Digital Rights of Individuals

The Report also notes violations of Turkish users’ digital rights. In fact, violation of users’ rights causes Turkey to fall into the low rankings more than political and social constraints. The most famous cases referred to in the report are those of internationally renowned pianist Fazil Say and Turkish-Armenian linguist Sevan Nisanyan, who both expressed their opinion on a religious matter and were subjected to online hate speech, calls to lynching, and death threats. While the two notables have been “awarded” 10-month prison sentences, those who insulted, threatened and called for mass violence against them have been pardoned by the eyes of Themis. The 2013 report also notes a first in Turkey, as a blogger was imprisoned for 9 years and 7 months for sharing content that is regarded as supporting a terrorist organization, thus filling the last empty spot in Turkey’s ration card.

While Turkish society is still struggling to gain social freedoms in the streets, digital platforms can serve as a basis for starting habits for a liberal approach to freedoms. The Internet being a place where individuals can express their opinions without being subject to physical attacks, it is a great candidate for serving as a milestone for democratization. The users can exist in blogs, microblogs and social sharing platforms with their own evaluations, expressions, opinions, ignoring the content they do not like or agree with and respecting everyone’s right to do so. This approach, which can be seen as one of the reasons why “Generation Y” is so individualistic regardless of national boundaries, enables them to express their opinions without fear. However, the guarantees for freedom of expression must not be an excuse for hate speech and calls for hate crime, which endanger some people’s freedoms. If one is to take Fazil Say’s case as an example, while he is given a 10-month prison sentence for sharing a poem of 11th century poet Omar Khayyam’s, the threats and insults he was subjected to went far beyond the reach of freedom of expression.

Privacy, Anonymity, Surveillance

Another important matter dealt with in detail in the report is the fact that transparency is still not an attribute of the Turkish state even after a decade of a supposed liberalization process, and many individuals are still subjected to intervention in their private lives by state organs. As the report suggests, over the course of 10 years, about half a million people’s phones were tapped and their privacy has been violated. Even now, one out of every 50,000 telecoms devices in Turkey are still subject to wiretaps. According to the report, courts receive over 200,000 interception requests. It has gotten to the point that even the Prime Minister’s phones and offices have been intercepted without his notice.

Whereas progress and improvement has been expected in this regard, the Turkish government has approved regulations granting the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) and National Police Department, as well as the Gendarmarie, the right to intercept anyone’s communication and access and monitor individuals’ data traffic. The report also refers to the international community’s interest in Turkey’s surveillance policies and the DDoS attacks that were initiated with the leadership of Anonymous against several state institutions’ Web sites in Turkey. Alongside the Freedom on the Net report, many other NGOs and international organizations now declare Turkey as being among the surveillance states, right after France, Germany, and England, and Index of Censorship even wrote a complaint letter to the Council of Europe since this is in violation of Articles 8 and 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

The last effect of the misapplications referred to in the report is in economics. Today, Turkish users are still unable to purchase a phone without registering their ID numbers, and these numbers are requested for all kinds of purchases, leaving digital imprints, individuals’ records of data traffic, in the system. According to the report, this application slows down the economy too. Moreover, the wide use of the infamous PHORM application in the Turkish telecoms system is subject of criticism.

In conclusion, it is possible to say that individual rights and freedoms on the Internet are widely violated in Turkey, which is still listed as a partly free country, counted among the same group as formerly authoritarian states. In addition, it is possible to over come these obstacles by taking the initiative, yet in order to initiate a culture of respect and tolerance, the first step is to raise awareness and digital literacy in Turkey. Digital literacy, lowering Internet access prices, and liberalization of the telecoms sector would all contribute to furthering digital rights in Turkey. Once infrastructure problems are solved and the legal framework is brought in line with international human rights’ standards, individuals will enjoy a humane digital atmosphere, thus bringing the whole country to a much higher ranking in humanitarian and freedom indexes.

Unfortunately, even today a great many people are afraid of other people’s enjoying freedoms. If there is a social or cultural problem, it is important to make it known that the solution never lies in censorship or prohibition, but in letting individuals enjoy their freedoms within the confines of editorship with regard to regulations on hate speech and sexual abuse. The final step after lifting censorship and blockage would be to abandon surveillance methods, trusting citizens’ choices. Perhaps the main cause of today’s problematic situation is the abuse of laws through an extremely broad interpretation of the terms “terror” and “crime.” The day we will not be afraid of someone being free, will be the day when Turkey will get rid of the label of “Turkey: Hell of Censorship.”

This entry was posted in AKP, Digital, Europeanization, Hate Speech, Protests, Social Media, Surveillance State, Turkey. Bookmark the permalink.

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