The troubling message of this week’s internet bans in Turkey

Internet Rights Protest, 2011.  Photo by Kevglobal

Internet Rights Protest, 2011. Photo by Kevglobal

The ban, earlier this week, of of facebook, twitter, and youtube, along with a threatened ban of google proved to be short lasting.  The chilling message the ban sends regarding freedom of expression in Turkey is nonetheless deeply disturbing.

“The Turkish authorities have a disturbing history when it comes to freedom of expression online, with a track record of resorting to blanket internet bans when something they don’t like is published,” said Andrew Gardner, Turkey researcher at Amnesty International.

The cause of these blanket bans was the wide publication of disturbing images of a Turkish prosecutor being held at gunpoint.  A court in Istanbul ruled the images constituted “propaganda for a terrorist organization” and caused “enmity or hatred.”

Andrew Gardner

Andrew Gardner

Amnesty’s Andrew Gardner responded to these events by noting

While these images are indeed disturbing, if the court is to restrict or ban access to such images, it must provide more credible justification than that they are “propaganda for terrorism”; it must also take into account the public interest in having knowledge of such images, as well as the right to privacy of the slain prosecutor and his family.

Moreover, even if Google fails to comply with such restrictions ordered by a court, to respond by banning all access to Google is a disproportionate interference with the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right of everyone to access to information.

The internet bans this week fall into an unseemly pattern in Turkey.  Restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly are growing and social media has been a particular target of Turkish efforts to control public discourse.  Amnesty notes that:

In February 2014 the government brought a series of restrictive amendments to the Internet law increasing the speed and the grounds under which Internet content could be blocked or removed.

In March of last year, Twitter and YouTube were blocked for two weeks and two months respectively due to items posted on the sites ahead of local elections in March. Since that time the authorities have continued to block websites due to content posted on them through administrative orders and through applications to the courts. According to Twitter’s 2015 transparency report, Turkey made 477 requests for the company to remove content, more than any other country.

Perhaps most obviously, there has been a sharp rise in the number of prosecutions targeting social media users, sometimes under absurdly vague anti-terror statutes, but even more often under laws criminalising “insult” and are brought following criminal complaints made by senior government or other public officials that their rights have been violated.

Howard Eissenstat
St. Lawrence University



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