March 7, 2014 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Turkey drifts dangerously away from free press

Reporters Without Borders was shocked to hear Prime Minister Recep Rayyip Erdogan’s declarations on 7 March 2014, during which he announced new Internet restrictions would be discussed. According to these new restrictions, local Facebook and Youtube pages could be completely shut down. “We are extemely worried by the fact that Erdogan would even consider such radical actions. The government has been multiplying legal initiatives which jeopardize freedom of information, letting us believe that this is no mere warning,” said Johann Bihr, Head of Reporters Without Borders’ Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Just as a new Internet censoring law has been approved, the government has submitted a bill which would drastically stretch the intelligence services’ prerogatives. This bill would make it effectively impossible for the intelligence service to undergo legal and journalistic investigations.” “Its hard to imagine that freedom of information will ever be respected under these new repressive measures.”

How far will Internet censorship go?

In an interview for the ATV TV channel on 6 March, Erdogan stated the government would submit new amendments to the law on Internet after the 30 March municipal elections. These measures would essentially aim to prevent publications of phone recordings, which have put the government in an uncomfortable position these past months. During the interview, Erdogan said the Youtube and Facebook shutdowns were being considered. “We will not sacrifice our people to Facebook or Youtube”, he insisted, as he accused “people or institutions that encourage spying and immorality.” “This conception of freedom cannot exist (…) We are determnined to take the necessary steps.”

Legal initiatives threatening democracy

Erdogan made these declaration less than a month after the government approved a law strenghtening Internet censorship in Turkey. At the request of the President of the Republic, Abdullah Gül, the Parliament voted two amendments on 26 February, supposedly in the interest of democracy. Preventive blocking of any website must now be reviewed by a judge under 48 hours, and the High Council for Telecommunications (TIB) will no longer have access to Internet users’ personal data without a court ruling. However, the extent of these modifications remains limited, and the congested state of Turkish justice make their implementation highly implausible on such short notice. Authorities recently submitted another draft bill to the Parliament, which aims to stretch the Turkish Intelligence services’ (MIT) powers. The bill, which will be debated after the municipal elections, provides for an authorization of the MIT to “collect, register and analyze information by any method, tool, or technical/human intelligence system.” A simple requested by the MIT will force any public institution or legal person (including the media) to disclose all data. Those who refuse risk two to four years of imprisonment. In the name of the fight against terrorism and national security, the reform provides for the creation of a vast communications supervision network. Anyone who publishes MIT documents will be liable to up to nine years in prison. The scope of this prohibition remains unclear. Considering the abuse in legal practices that have been used in the fight against terrorism, we fear any publication relating to the activities of the intelligence services could be penalized. MIT officials, however, benefit from almost total immunity. Their director cannot be indicted by the Supreme Court without the approval of the Prime Minister. Turkey ranks 154th out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ 2014 World Press Freedom Index. (Photo: Adem Altan / AFP, Ozan Kose / AFP)