Turkish MPs were to debate Wednesday Internet legislation roundly criticised as a further attack by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on freedom of expression, access to information and investigative journalism.
The proposals come amid parallel moves by Erdogan to push through contentious judicial reforms as he fights to keep the lid on a deeply damaging corruption probe entangling some of his closest allies.
Turks’ ability to go online is already far from free, activists say, with a controversial 2007 Internet law used to block thousands of websites and authorities filing reams of requests to block content.
The OSCE says that the existing “Law 5651” is not in line with “international standards on freedom of expression, independence and pluralism of the media and the free flow of information”.
Websites including blogging tool WordPress and video-sharing services DailyMotion and Vimeo have been blocked temporarily by court orders, while YouTube was off limits for two years until 2010, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said.
Some alternative news websites cannot be accessed and people have been fined and imprisoned for comments on social media.
In 2013 world-renowned pianist Fazil Say was given a suspended jail term for tweets insulting religious values.
But the amendments to the existing law, which form part of a so-called omnibus bill containing a mishmash of other measures, go further still.
The most disturbing component, says Yaman Akdeniz, law professor at Bilgi private university in Istanbul, is “Orwellian” new powers for the Telecommunications Communications Presidency (TIB).
The authority will be able to request and collect communications and traffic data from hosting and service providers — without a court order or a justified reason, Akdeniz told AFP.
It will be able to order a provider to block any website deemed to have infringed privacy or be discriminatory or insulting, or to protect young people from unsuitable content.
The measures, Akdeniz said, will “move Turkey away from the European Union in terms of Internet policy, perhaps a few steps closer to China”.
The OSCE said the TIB will be able to “gather communications data about all Internet users without any legal limits or restrictions,” with users “never… able to know when and how this information is gathered”.
Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake said that in Turkey’s EU accession talks, Brussels needed to tell Ankara such legislation is “unacceptable” and that “the rule of law and fundamental freedoms are at the centre of EU policy”.
Reporters Without Borders said the aim is “to reinforce cyber-censorship, government control of the Internet and surveillance”, while the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called it a “slide into Internet authoritarianism”.
“If passed, the amendments to Turkey’s already restrictive Internet law would compound a dismal record on press freedom in the country, which is the leading jailer of journalists worldwide,” the CPJ said.
The Islamic-rooted government rejects the criticism, with Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc saying there is “no such thing as Internet censorship. We are freer compared to many other countries and have freedom of press.”
Erdogan, Turkey’s all-powerful leader since 2003, is openly suspicious of the Internet, branding Twitter a “menace” for helping organise mass nationwide protests in June in which six people died and thousands injured.
For critics, last week gave a taste of things to come when Umut Oran, deputy leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), was told by the TIB to remove a parliamentary question from his website.
The question, which media were also told to not report on, was close to the bone for Erdogan, asking about purported recordings of phone calls involving the prime minister, his son and a minister.
The TIB attempted to backtrack, calling the order an “error”, but the damage was done.
“On orders from the prime minister, is the T?B going to clean up corruption motions on parliament’s website?” said Oran. “We are not going to surrender to censorship.”