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Posts Tagged ‘internet law

The AKP v. Social Media

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Turkey has a long history of official government censorship.  Despite this fact, the issue has exploded on both the national and international stage over the past several years.  The factors driving the shift from passive acceptance to active resistance to media censorship among Turks are two-fold: there has been a radical shift in both people’s expectations of the media and the seriousness of Turkey’s censorship laws

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a talk at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society by Prof. Zeynep Tufekci, sociologist of technology, and Engin Onder, one of the founders of the Turkish alternative media collective 140 Journos.  Engin traced the inspiration for 140 Journos to a pivotal moment in recent Turkish media history.  In 2011, a group of Kurdish smugglers crossing the Turkey-Iraq border were bombed by the Turkish military.  The Turkish government subsequently claimed that they had believed the group to be PKK fighters.  Thirty-four people, mostly teenage boys, were killed.  After the story broke, the Turkish media sat on it, afraid of repercussions if they were to break the story.  One journalist, Serdar Akinan, decided to report on the incident independently.  In an iconoclastic act of “citizen journalism,” Serdar traveled to the home village of the victims just in time to witness a mass funeral.  He uploaded a picture of the funeral procession to his instagram account, which spread rapidly on social media, effectively breaking a story that the mainstream media had refused to touch.

Serdar’s reporting on the Roboski massacre demonstrated the power of social media to cut through the mainstream media’s stifling self-censorship.  The coverage of the Gezi protests a year and half later offered further proof of the growing disconnect between the information being reported by the mainstream media and the facts on the ground.  The Gezi protesters and those that sympathized with their cause relied on social media sources, especially twitter, for accurate, up-to-date information.  Sources like 140 Journos were especially important as they vet their reports for accuracy before posting them.

The ability to access unfettered news via the internet questions the whole logic of government censorship.  What’s the point of censoring one form of media when the same information can be spread on another?  Instead of using the rise of social media as an excuse to loosen its grip on the mainstream media, the Turkish government has pursued the opposite approach.  AKP government officials have argued that the media controls imposed by the AKP government are comparable to those imposed by previous Turkish governments.  However, Prof. Tufekci argued that the recently passed internet law gives the government unprecedented powers to pursue critics.  It will allow the government not only to access information about the web usage of all Turkish citizens but also to present this information in court as evidence.  The AKP government had previously blocked websites, most infamously YouTube.  However, as Prof. Tufekci pointed out, these bans were easily and frequently circumvented via tools like proxy servers; the prime minister himself acknowledged as much.  Very few Turks have ever been prosecuted for their online activities.  However, this new law is designed to close these loop holes by requiring ISPs to keep a 2 year log of all their customers’ activities.  Prof. Tufekci believes that likely use the information they gather from ISPs to bring intimidating suits against government critics for their online speech.

When asked about the threat that this new law poses to the work of 140 Journos, Engin seemed fairly unconcerned.  Indeed, the Turkish government is playing a loosing game in its attempts to censor the internet. Half of Turks are under the age of 30.  At least 50% of the population has access to the internet at home and 41 % of internet users have a smart phone.  Twitter claims at least 10 million users in Turkey, making Turkish the 8th most used language on the micro-blogging site.  Erdogan’s frequent denunciations of social media sites, Twitter in particular, indicates that he considers these sites, and in following the free flow of information, a real threat to his hold on power. Two weeks ago, he threatened to ban Facebook and YouTube, a threat that he subsequently back down on.  Just today, Erdogan announced that he planed to “dig out” twitter from Turkey.  Despite the immediate panic this statement is causing, I would be very surprised if it was carried through.  At the Bergmen Center talk Prof. Tufekci made it very clear that extreme measures such as a total ban on the internet were very unlikely to happen in Turkey due to the internet’s deep penetration in society.  If the government were to attempt to ban the internet, it would be a clear indication that they have completely lost control.  Due to its popularity in Turkey, I would argue that the same sentiment applies to banning Twitter, if to a some what lesser degree.  Twitter has become invaluable to government opponents in terms of organizing, sharing news, etc.  Erdogan is playing a dangerous game, and he almost certainly knows it.  The “Gezi people” will not accept such a ban without a fight.  If Erdogan does indeed have a court order to shut down Twitter in Turkey, the consequences may cost him dearly.

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Institutionalized Censorship

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Update: Since posting this, President Gul has signed the internet bill into law.

Censorship is its own institution in Turkey.  More specifically, media censorship operates through multiple institutions and is pervasive to the point that it has been internalized by individual journalists.  The current government’s illiberal attitude toward both traditional and new media is not rooted in their brand of conservative, Islamic-inspired ideology but in Turkey’s tradition of state paternalism.  It is perpetuated through cultural norms and, under this government, through the entanglement of media with businesses, particularly construction and banking, a situation that provides ample incentive for media companies to remain in the government’s good graces.

Even before Gezi brought it international attention, media censorship was an everyday, open reality in Turkey.  Anyone who has spent more than a week in the country will have encountered the bizarre phenomenon of flowers covering cigarettes on TV or a message warning you that a website has been blocked by the government.  Turks put up with and even expected the government to institute censorship.  Hence Erdogan’s recent nonchalant admission that he personally requested that a television station cut references to a statement made by an opposition member of parliament during the Gezi protests.

However, within the past year attitudes have been changing.  The Gezi protests were a turning point in both Turkish citizens’ and the Turkish government’s relationship with censorship.  The extent of government bias in media was laid bare in the infamous penguin incident on Turkish television and the fight against censorship pulled into the mix of eclectic grievances expressed by the Gezi protesters.  Simultaneiously, the use of social media during the course of the protests exposed the internet as the weak point in the government’s control of information.

As Turkish citizens called for a freer press, the government sought to plug the dike of social media.  Their initial tactic was to prosecute citizens for online speech.  However, the failure of this tactic has been laid bare in the wake of the graft scandal which hit the country December 17.  As the government fought to contain the extent of the corruption probe, leaks began springing online.  Videos and voice recordings purporting to show government officials engaged in corruption began spreading via social media.  The new internet bill aims to contain these leaks.  The current protocol for blocking a website or removing a piece of information posted online requires a court order.  In the time it takes to procure such an order, items posted online, such as the leaks related to the corruption probe, have time to go viral.  The new internet censorship law would cut out the requirement for a court order, allowing the government to censor online information at will.  The law also requires that internet service providers store data from their customers for two years so that the government can search the internet history of users for nefarious activity.

If President Gul signs this bill into law (he has until the 25th of this month to do so), it will be a huge blow to free speech in Turkey.  Despite pre-existing government censorship, the internet was the freest platform for communication in Turkey.  However if, or more likely when, the law goes into effect, it will not be the death of the internet in Turkey.  The internet as a constantly expanding and changing system, free of political borders, and its dynamics will always be on the side of those who wish to spread information rather than contain it.  Unless the internet is completely taken out of play, users will find creative ways to work around any government that tries to constrain it.