Freedom or dignity: media censorship in the new Turkey

Banning one photo from the internet might seem to reflect the paranoia of an increasingly authoritarian AKP regime but Erdogan’s grasp could really be weakening.

John Lubbock
7 April 2015

DHKP-C supporters recalling the killing of Berkin Elvan at a protest in Istanbul in January. Flickr / John Lubbock. Some rights reserved.

You wouldn’t have thought one photo could enrage the Turkish government so much. The photo showed a member of DHKP-C, a violent far-left group, with a gun to the head of a prosecutor investigating the case of Berkin Elvan, a 15-year-old boy killed by police during the 2013 Gezi protests.

On the surface, this photo could have had excellent propaganda uses for the Turkish government, helping to paint leftist supporters of the Gezi protests as dangerous radicals connected to terrorism. But, for some reason, the government decided that the photo was so dangerous that it used recent internet laws to censor it and block websites and Twitter accounts which published it. The Egyptian blogger Nervana Mahmoud was very surprised to find herself as the only non-Turkish Twitter account-holder to have her Tweet of the photo blocked.

But the Turkish government was not satisfied with blocking just these pages. It used the new laws to block access to all of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and even Google until those companies complied with its demands to remove all appearances of the photo. After they did so, for Turkish users, all the services were later resumed.

Careful with one’s behaviour

At the funeral of the prosecutor killed in the hostage incident, the prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, said: “Human dignity is more important than press freedom. From now on, everyone will be careful. Everyone will be careful with their behavior.” This is in keeping with a record of prosecutions for those who insult or disparage the honour of anyone in Turkey rich enough to be litigious.

In October last year the government tried to amend provisions of an internet law to provide a legal basis for blocking any site which threatened “national security or public order”. The amendments gave authority to the Turkish Telecommunications Authority (TIB) to block any site within four hours and demand logs of users’ internet activity from internet service providers. This was overturned by the Constitutional Court, but in February 2015 the government reframed the law so that any MP or the prime minister could ask the TIB to ban a website. A court authorisation is still required within 24 hours or the ban must be lifted within 48 hours.

Twitter’s transparency report for the second half of 2014 showed that 90% of all block requests worldwide had been made by the Turkish government. The new laws have also been used to ban websites discussing an alleged attack on a religious woman who claimed that up to 100 Gezi Park protesters had urinated on her in public—a case championed by pro-government media, despite the absence of any CCTV evidence supporting her claims.

President insulted

More than 70 people have also been prosecuted for insulting the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an offence punishable by up to four years in prison. They have included cartoonists, journalists, a former Miss Universe contestant and a 16-year-old student. In two of these cases, the individual simply shared someone else’s social-media post.

Protester against internet censorship in Turkey

A protest against internet censorship in Turkey. Flickr / Global Panorama. Some rights reserved.Critics fear that the increase in prosecutions of Erdoğan’s opponents could be a sign of things to come if he is able to institute the ‘presidential system’ he wants. Traditionally, the Turkish presidency has been a non-political office with less power than that of the prime minister, though Erdoğan (formerly prime minister himself) is the first to be elected by the public. Now he wants to change the role to give himself more power and prolong his control over Turkish politics. Looking to the forthcoming general election, in March he said: “Give us 400 parliamentarians on June 7 and let us change the system peacefully.”

Erdoğan’s Islamist AKP currently holds 312 seats and needs 367 for the absolute majority required to pass constitutional reforms. Ominous pronouncements demanding that the country give him over 70% of parliamentary seats do little to dampen the accusations of his opponents that he is acting in an increasingly authoritarian manner.

Ironically, the persistent desire of the authorities to control access to information has made Turkish citizens some of the most tech-savvy in the world. Many now use Tor or virtual-private-network (VPN) services to reroute their internet access through servers in other countries and bypass restrictions imposed on Turkish IP addresses. Twitter users mocking the government circulated a supposedly pro-government meme criticising the use of VPNs as un-Islamic. Whether the meme had been created by those supportive of the government or was simply a parody of AKP supporters created by their critics is unknown.

Internal divisions

All this begs the question: was the photo of the hostage-taking really so dangerous that it had to be blocked entirely? Or is there a culture of information control within the Turkish state which is increasingly coming into conflict with an online discourse which it does not control? Or perhaps the government is trying to redirect attention away from internal divisions which have begun to emerge over the past few years.

Now Erdoğan is no longer technically part of the government, he is not in charge of leading the negotiations over the peace process with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and its leader, Abdullah Öcalan. In March, Erdoğan openly criticised the creation of a monitoring committee and a press conference at which a minister announced a ten-point programme for the peace settlement, saying this should have been postponed until after the election. In response, the deputy prime minister, Bülent Arınç, criticised Erdoğan’s interference. “We love our president. We’re aware of his power and the good service he gives to our nation. But there is a government in this country," Arınç said.

These comments sparked off a row with the mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökçek, who accused Arınç of being a pawn of the Gülen movement, a religious group once core supporters of the AKP but now Erdoğan’s principal enemy. It’s difficult to tell exactly what is going on within the party but the cracks which have begun to appear since Erdoğan fell out with the movement in 2013 suggest not everyone in the AKP is sure about where he is taking the country.

The growing censorship in Turkey seems to be intimately connected to the struggle to control the political discourse in the run-up to the election. Even though the AKP is guaranteed to win, Erdoğan has set the party an even higher goal of 400 seats, which it is impossible to achieve. Its share of the vote seems to have peaked at around 50% and it seems unlikely that there are many more who can be persuaded to switch from one of the other parties. Some recent polling even shows the AKP losing support on the right to the nationalist MHP.

Political uncertainty

Much of the AKP’s success has been due to favourable economic conditions, which have improved living standards for a significant proportion of the population, but these conditions could be expiring. Rising political uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the election and the fading prospect of EU membership are causing foreign direct investment to dry up. The Turkish lira has lost 10% of its value since the beginning of 2015 and Erdoğan has been trying to press the (independent) central bank to adopt a looser monetary policy.

A picture is beginning to emerge of a ruling party facing an internal crisis and unsure of how to proceed without defying the will of its powerful leader. If, as is all but certain, the AKP does not succeed in increasing its share of parliamentary seats, Erdoğan will be left as a lame duck, in a constitutional position that gives him limited powers relative to the prime minister.

The increasingly erratic attempts to censor online media appear in this context as a strategy to shore up nationalistic right-wing support while preventing core AKP supporters from being exposed to critical media coverage. Erdoğan may not care at all about the effect of one particular photo—he may simply want to be seen to be in control of a situation rapidly slipping out of his grasp.

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