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President Erdoğan has purged the press, now he’s going after social media

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has announced he will press ahead with his government’s controversial plans aimed at regulating social media companies.

On some level, the plans are in line with wider discussions across Europe and the United States about how best to regulate the increasingly powerful social media companies.

The draft legislation, currently being prepared by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), includes plans to ensure social media companies have official representatives in Turkey; just as is the case in the U.S. and a number of European countries.

Other countries also legislate for large fines (up to €50 million in the proposed Turkish law) to penalise social media companies found to be in non-compliance. Most recently, last May, France passed a law imposing millions of euros in penalties for social media companies that do not remove hate content within 24 hours.

The problem is, while these rules may be effective in liberal democracies, there are very legitimate fears that in the Turkish context, they may have a very different effect. This point was highlighted in the German newspaper Deutsche Welle, that noted:

“Germany is cited as an example for the social media law being discussed in Turkey. However, experts point out that Germany is a country with high rule of law norms, and there is a risk that autocratic regimes could abuse a law like the one in Germany.”

Should President Erdoğan get his way, and this draft legislation comes into fruition, it seems very likely the laws will be an extension of the state’s toolkit to stifle free speech, quashing any semblance of opposition to his regime.

Erdoğan’s Motivations

Perhaps the biggest indication that these new laws are troubling, is Pro-Erdoğan news outlet, The Daily Sabah, insisting that it is nothing to worry about.

The Daily Sabah takes the view that the legislation, “will challenge [the] spread of terror propaganda and hate speech, but not prevent freedom of expression”. If one thing has become patently clear since the failed coup of 2016; in Erdoğan’s eyes, challenging terrorism and preventing freedom of expression are one and the same thing.

Journalists, news outlets, activists, judges and lawyers have all been purged under the guise of national security and fighting terrorism.

Turkey remains the world’s biggest jailer of professional journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists put the figure at 45 imprisoned journalists in their 2020 report. However, according to Ahval, the arrest of Müyesser Yıldız last month brought the total number to 85 journalists and media workers currently behind bars in Turkey. Even prior to the new legislation, Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), who ranks Turkey 154 out of 180 countries on their Press Freedom Index 2020, says:

“Censorship of websites and online social media has reached unprecedented levels”

This sentiment is shared by Veysel Ok, co-director of the Media and Law Studies Association, who told Ahval:

“[The] current legal system already hinders social media. Both anti-terror laws and laws on online crimes give extensive authority to judiciary and government.”

In 2014, shortly before local elections in Turkey, Erdoğan blocked sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to prevent the spread of a leaked audio recording exposing corruption within the President’s inner circle.

Just a year later, in April 2015, the Turkish authorities blocked social media sites once again, this time to stop people seeing the image of a Turkish prosecutor being held at gunpoint after being taken hostage. The prosecutor was later killed. In this case, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and 166 websites which shared the image were blocked and a criminal investigation was launched against four newspapers for publishing them.

A court found these bans were necessary to block “propaganda for an armed terrorist organisation and distressing for the prosecutor’s family”.

More recently, in March 2020, Turkey arrested 410 people for making “provocative” posts on social media, “attempting to stir unrest about the coronavirus”. Rights groups have criticised Turkey’s leadership for capitalising on the coronavirus to continue its crackdown on criticism.

Extending Ankara’s powers over social media companies will only extend their ability to crackdown on dissidence.

The Turkish Premier has had his way with the press, the conventional media is now submissive, backed into self-censorship or shut down entirely. Now, at a time when President Erdoğan is vulnerable to criticism over his actions in Libya and Syria, and when Turkey finds itself on the brink of conflict with Ethiopia, he seeks to gain the same control over social media too.

The AK Party suggests that the regulation is being raised in response to a rise in sexist attacks and hate speech against women on social media, including members of Erdoğan’s family.

However, some analysts have noted the announcement came shortly after a stunt which saw thousands of young Turks bombarding the Turkish President during a live stream. They inundated the live stream with real-time comments using the hashtag #OyMoyYok, translated to “Not getting my vote” in English.

Would so many young Turks have felt safe challenging the President under the proposed legislation? Most likely not and seems that President Erdoğan would agree.

The devil’s in the detail?

The draft legislation includes a number of stipulations for social media companies that want to operate in Turkey.

One of the most controversial elements of the bill is that social media companies will be expected to implement systems that will confirm the IDs of their users and, as per the bill, this user data must be stored in Turkey.

The bill also requires social media companies to appoint a legal representative within the country to whom the courts can request to remove content or provide the identity of users. In countries with an independent judiciary, this might be problematic. In Turkey, where judges are beholden to the President, it is potentially catastrophic.

Meanwhile, non-compliance will lead to the aforementioned fines. Ultimately, internet traffic bandwidth of social networking providers that do not meet the requirements despite warnings, will be gradually reduced, potentially to the point of non-existence.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is Meral Aksener, Turkey’s opposition leader, in favour of the bill, despite noting:

“The government moves with malicious intent instead of good intent,”

Aksener bases her support on the overarching need to regulate the social media companies to bring Turkey closer to EU standards, saying:

“We should also take these steps, but we should do it not by restricting freedoms or by putting a burden on the people, but with good sense…Let’s enact the necessary laws and take measures to deter immoralists, let’s guarantee right and justice for our nation.”

Ultimately, opposition support will likely push this legislation over the line. Whether Aksener succeeds in being able to “guarantee right and justice for our nation” remains an open question. Though when it comes, the answer might not be welcomed.

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