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Press Freedom

Internet Holds a Presidential Hope

Police use tear gas and water canons in Istanbul to disperse demonstrators protesting the new Internet bill. Credit: Emrah Gurel/IPS.

ANKARA, Feb 14 2014 (IPS) - Turkey is waiting to see if President Abdullah Gul will ratify the government’s controversial Internet bill, which opposition parties, civil society and the international community call a major restriction on freedom of expression.

Gul had said three years ago that “there shouldn’t be any restrictions over the Internet.” Freedom champions are waiting now for him to walk the talk.

Parliament has passed the bill which bypasses the judiciary by authorising Turkey’s telecommunication board, TIB, to take a decision on blocking a website or individual web content in case of complaints of violation of personal rights and right to privacy. The new bill also allows the authorities to track individual web records of Internet users.

"The Turkish public deserves more information and more transparency, not more restrictions."

The bill has caused serious concern within the European Union. Peter Stano, spokesperson for Stefan Fule, the Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, said the bill introduces several restrictions on the freedom of expression.

“This law is raising serious concerns here. The Turkish public deserves more information and more transparency, not more restrictions,” Stano said.

Turkey’s government, however, says the bill is aimed at protecting people’s privacy. Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that with the existing law it takes some five days to remove content from the web, and the new law will reduce this period.

“The Internet isn’t being removed, it is being brought under control,” Erdogan said in a televised speech. “Perceiving this [law] as censorship is cruelty. In fact, this law is making the Internet more liberal…By Internet regulation, Turkey will no longer be a country which is being blackmailed by tapes.”

Turkey’s main opposition party calls the bill a “politically motivated” step to increase governmental control over the Internet and stop leaks about a recent graft probe. Social media has become the public information channel of purported graft probe documents and recordings of wiretapped phone conversations, including those of Erdogan and other senior government officials.

The graft probe, which kicked off Dec. 17, has already led four ministers to lose their seats in the cabinet due to alleged involvement in corruption. Erdogan says the probe is a “conspiracy” against him and is aimed at toppling his government.

He accuses influential cleric Fethullah Gulen’s supporters of being members of a “parallel state” that is behind the probe. Gulen, who is in self-imposed exile in the United States, was once a close ally of Erdogan’s government and is believed to have many supporters in Turkey and in the Turkish bureaucracy, especially in the judiciary and police. The two are reportedly locked in a power struggle.

A legislator from Turkey’s main opposition said the bill was a “clear attempt to censor the recent bribe and corruption scandal” and “against basic human rights and freedoms.

“This is against the Copenhagen criteria and may put Turkey’s European Union aspirations at risk,” Aykan Erdemir told IPS, referring to standards that Turkey needs to achieve in order to join the 28-member group.

“Leaving a decision to a bureaucrat without a court order is unacceptable. This is a violation of the presumption of innocence.”

The new bill also calls for all Internet service providers to unite under an umbrella group called the Internet Service Providers Association. The association will have to block a website or content within four hours at TIB’s request. Web page owners would be able to appeal the decision in court.

The bill also allows the association to keep individual web records of Internet users for two years and share them with the authorities on request.

An Internet watchdog group, the Turkish Informatics Association, said the bill is “not constructive but destructive.”

“We are concerned that this will cause self-censorship as users’ records will be archived. People will be afraid of visiting some sites,” İlker Tabak, deputy head of the association, told IPS.

“The websites will be closed without even asking their owners to defend themselves. We have a state governed by laws, and decisions to block [sites] shouldn’t be left to personal initiative.”

The New York-based media freedom advocacy group, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has labeled the bill a “radical censorship measure.”

“If passed, the amendments to Turkey’s already restrictive Internet law would compound a dismal record on press freedom in the country…Internet freedom has been deteriorating steadily in Turkey for some time,” the group said.

Most recently, an Azerbaijani journalist who works for Turkey’s English language newspaper Today’s Zaman left the country. The “Turkish authorities added his name to a list of people who are barred from entering Turkey” after he posted critical Tweets about Erdogan, Today’s Zaman reported.

Meanwhile, civil rights groups and NGOs have urged Gul to veto the bill. Turkey’s largest business association, TUSIAD, sent a letter to Gul saying the bill “should be revised” in accordance with the definition of basic human rights, including freedom of expression.

The new bill has also prompted protests in major cities like Istanbul and Ankara. Hundreds of demonstrators have taken to the streets to protest the bill and mount pressure on Gul.

Gul’s stance on Internet freedom is starkly different from that of Erdogan who once defined social media as the “worst menace” for societies.

“I think there shouldn’t be any restrictions over the Internet. Everyone should be able to use the Internet freely,” Gul had tweeted in May 2011. But Gul rarely vetoes government bills as he is one of the founding members of the ruling AKP party.

Gul is one of the most active leaders on Twitter with some four million followers so far. Hasip Kaplan, a legislator from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, BDP, said Friday that he would lose one follower if Gul ratified the bill.

“We will see to what extent Mr. President is libertarian. I think the President should veto this. In case he doesn’t I will delete him from my Twitter, I will unfollow him.”

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