October 28, 2015

Freedom House: Internet freedom ’highly imperiled’ in Turkey

World's leading rights group has warned against restriction over Internet freedom in Turkey, highlighting that the Internet freedom is "highly imperiled" in the country where many are prosecuted and harassed for what they write online.

Turkey was ranked "Partly Free" by the latest Freedom House report on the Internet freedom released on Wednesday, detailing cases that significantly restricted the freedom online. The rights body said elections, protests, and scandals marked the online sphere in Turkey over the past year. As the political and social significance of social media has grown, the report said, so have legal restrictions on their use.

The report, entitled Freedom on the Net, noted that the role of social media in weakening the Turkish ruling party’s control over the flow of information has led to new laws to censor content. It added that blocking orders tend to coincide with important political events, such as an election, intelligence leak, hostage crisis, or corruption scandal.

According to the report, dozens of Turkish users were detained and prosecuted for their online activities over the past year, often arbitrarily singled out for content that was satirical in nature. It said “insulting” public officials, namely President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was the most common charge. At least 67 people were charged by Erdoğan in the past year for their online activities. Freedom House said the aggressive prosecutions have had "a significant chilling effect" on ordinary social media users and well-known activists alike.

Limits on content

Freedom House said limits on content continued to increase in Turkey over the past year. Entire web platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and WordPress, were temporarily blocked and remain under intense pressure. It said journalists, scholars, and public figures who are critical of the government faced coordinated harassment on Twitter.

The report stated that blocking continues to increase steadily, with at least 80,000 websites banned as of May 2015. The number of blocked websites, according to the report, has almost doubled in two years.

In addition to widespread filtering, the report said state authorities often request the removal of content. The report recalled Twitter’s latest Transparency Report, which said requests by the Turkish authorities to remove content have increased dramatically since the most popular social media platform started publishing data in 2012. "Incredibly," Freedom House said, "92 percent of all court orders and 55 percent of administrative requests that Twitter received around the world over the past six months originated in Turkey alone.

Restrictions over social media

Freedom House described the online atmosphere as "the climate of fear" created by widespread government prosecution of online activities. This has led to an increase in self-censorship, particularly when it comes to criticism of the government or public officials.

Journalists and scholars who are critical of the government have faced orchestrated harassment on Twitter, often by dozens or even hundreds of users, the report said. Earlier this month, editor-in-chief of this newspaper Bülent Keneş was briefly arrested over a series of tweets critical of the government. He was accused of "insulting Erdoğan," a euphemism used to refer to harsh criticism of the president. Keneş appears in courts in a number of times per month over his critical tweets.

The report said as social media have gained prominence as a tool for activism and criticism of the government, legal cases against Facebook and Twitter users "have skyrocketed." Prison sentences are rare, but the report said constant legal intimidation has a chilling effect on free speech online.

Overall, Freedom House said Internet freedom around the world declined for the fifth consecutive year in 2015 as more governments censored information of public interest while also expanding surveillance.

Published on Today's Zaman, 28 October 2015, Wednesday