Turkish citizens today have not-so-distant memories of government officials and police breaking into their homes, looking under beds and in sock drawers to collect and burn banned books. For the developed nations of the Western world, the fact that this happened as late as 1980 in Turkey is difficult to understand. But there is even more shocking censorship going on now: the recent Internet laws passed by President Abdullah Gul that bring certain restrictions to social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube.
Whenever issues of censorship and freedom of expression come up in the United States, the phrase “the protection of First Amendment rights” gets thrown around freely, and those protections—technically—are more complex in Turkey. In the final version of the Turkish Constitution that remains unchanged since 1982, written after the military coup of 1980, sub-clause 1 of clause 28 is concerned with free press and protection against censorship and sub-clause 1 of clause 26, directly related to the freedom of expression, states that all individuals have constitutional rights to express their thoughts and ideas freely, either verbally or through means of writing, illustration or any other desired form of communication. This sub-clause also protects the right of citizens to receive information and the ideas of others without government restriction or regulation and guarantees the right to use and produce forms of media.
So the rise of censorship in the country may seem surprising, but Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attempted to change the constitution, which in itself is an unconstitutional action, in order to justify his government’s policies. In sync, his popularity has declined, and criticism regarding his open manipulation of the Turkish justice system and media, his harsh censorship and incarceration of journalists and his most recent order for the use of disproportional force against protesters—a policy which resulted in deaths and injuries—has arisen and become a prominent message across the country. According to Reporters Without Borders, of the 72 journalists incarcerated currently in Turkey, 42 are in jail for information gathering and distribution. With this number, Turkey leaves behind China and Iran, taking first place for the incarceration of journalists. The same report called Turkey the “world’s largest jail” for journalists. The New York based Committee for Protecting Journalists stated that the number of incarcerated journalists in Turkey has reached a world record in 2012. In 2013, Turkey was 154th among 180 countries in the world for freedom of press.
Under the protection of the constitution, none if this should be possible. However, having been in power for more than a decade now, PM Erdogan seems to have lost a sense of limitations to his powers. While the justice department remains the only force in the country, except the public’s right to protest, to keep Erdogan’s ego in check, his strategic taking-over of all branches of government over the years has left him surrounded by followers in the judiciary who block the path of anyone who is willing to question his constitutional violations. An example of the incarceration of an established journalist is Mustafa Balbay who, before he was put in jail for “conspiring against the government,” wrote for one of the leading news outlets of the nation, Cumhuriyet Gazetesi (The Republic Newspaper), a newspaper often closely related with the opposition. Balbay was taken from his home and in August 2013, was sentenced to 34 years and 8 months in jail in relation to the “Ergenekon Case and Odatv Cases.” These cases consisted of the government accusing hundreds of prominent military figures, journalists and politicians in the country of conspiring against the government and planning a coup d’etat. Balbay had been a regular columnist, writing a column that he had taken over from Ugur Mumcu, an investigative journalist who was assassinated in 1993 for uncovering Deep State relations in the Turkish government. After his assassination, Mumcu became something of a folk hero, representing the battle against the silencing of free speech, and it is ironic that his successor is now in jail. This case is only a single example among many that shows that with strong political allies in the judiciary, Erdogan freely overrules the constitution, dictating his own rules of governance and justice.
The law recently passed, sponsored by the ruling Justice and Development Party and signed off by Turkish President Abdullah Gul on February 5th, was not only met with great anger within the nation, but was also harshly criticized abroad for the large power it granted the national intelligence agency MIT to violate the right to privacy and free expression. The law dictates that any website with content deemed “dangerous” by the MIT will be subject to internal investigations that may lead to the blocking of the site in Turkey. Furthermore, the internet access of any individual is allowed to be tracked by the MIT and this information can be used to accuse individuals of “conspiring against the government” or other illegal organizational endeavors, an accusation that is very familiar to those who live in Turkey since it brings to mind the “Ergenekon” convictions of the near past. The problem with the MIT bill, and the reason critics and law officials are worried that it will transform Turkey into an intelligence state, is its tendency to promote digital profiling, thereby inhibiting the media and Internet users. Digital profiling is making judgments about the political and social motives of individuals according to information gathered about their Internet usage, such as their search history. The phobia of a police state, and intelligence state, a deep state, are more than irrational fears for Turkish citizens. The Turkish Republic was founded on drastic changes from the centuries-old Ottoman rule over the land. In its first years, many of the changes, ranging from the separation of religion and state, the change of the alphabet and women’s suffrage, were forced upon the public by the government for them to be implemented as quickly as necessary. The haste was to make up for the years of development lost, but the strict government imposing brought with it a fear of government control and mistrust in the power of those who rule. PM Erdogan’s authoritarian rule, in this sense, is all too familiar as it brings back memories of those years of government oppression and endless military coups. Therefore, under Erdogan’s rule, this new Internet law scares the Turkish people in a sense that is deeper than just a concern with free speech; it is rubbing salt in a wound that is still fresh.
Attorney Kürşat Ergün, head of the Information Technology Law Association (BHD), said: “The Internet law curbing Internet use not only exerts pressure on individuals, it contains many problematic issues in terms of basic human rights and freedoms due to its prohibitive nature. First of all, the law grants even more rights to the chief of the Telecommunications Directorate [TİB] to store people’s IP [Internet protocol address], pushing people to engage in self-censorship to avoid legal proceedings. This body has recently been instructed to set up a special unit to track social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook as well as Gmail, news outlets have reported.”
This sort of control and power over the internet can allow the government to silence opposition—an increasingly pressing issue since the Gezi Park last May. In many ways, the Internet law was part of Prime Minister Erdogan’s power-drunk election campaign. His promise to control and dominate the social media and Internet may be little more than a harsh, but panic-stricken move after Berkin Elvan, a 15-year-old-protester in a coma after receiving injuries sustained from excessive police violence during the Gezi Park protests, recently died, sparking protests and raising questions about—and sending popularity into a nosedive for—Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. Then again, with a huge bribery and embezzlement accusation dropping like a bomb on the PM on December 17, the move towards censorship seems like a political mistake: its lack of popularity will mean further damage to Erdogan’s already shaky image.
At this point in Turkish politics, Erdogan, has been in power since 2003 with support from a very large majority and a strong fan base. In many ways, Erdogan has impressed the Middle East and the world with his political charisma and negotiating prowess during the Arab Spring and Syria crisis. He has been credited with protecting the Turkish economy from the devastation that the Eurozone crisis brought to other countries, pulling it out of its debt to the IMF and reviving its economy. But these are mixed blessings, political credentials that are independent and require a strong hand and a strong public presence. Fortunately, the country is starting to see the true repercussions of his “one man politics” ways. The public, who has been silent for a while, watched as the PM single-handedly attempted to change the constitution, the criminal justice system and foreign policy, and has now begun to feel the walls closing in further with these new restrictions on Internet use, which come, significantly, in an era when using the Internet for communication is not only essential but a major tool for organization, opposition and protest.
This restriction demonstrates a more general prevention of the public from sharing ideas that go against the political and social norm by inhibiting the ability and right of the people to organize and convene about an issue that they care to bring change to. As a relatively young nation, Turkey’s democracy is still stumbling through baby steps, and these new laws and regulations inhibit the healthy and natural growth of a strong, fair and just democracy. The resentment shown towards this new law by the Turkish people is surprising given the criticism of Turkish youth as apolitical and apathetic. However, the new Internet law hits too close to home for a generation of Turkish youth who have found a voice and awareness through social media that hasn’t been granted to them before in a society that, as a cultural norm, advises the youth to remain respectfully silent. As much as this is an awakening for the young citizens of Turkey, for all others this law has been the last straw. Now, the nation focuses on the upcoming regional elections that have gained new importance in the wake of such civil unrest. A significant enough fall in vote popularity of the AKP might mean the end of PM Erdogan’s political dynasty, and the end of a dark era in Turkish politics.