Turkey imposes new law restricting freedom of expression


Turkey’s parliament, dominated by ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its ultra-nationalist junior partners, passed on Wednesday a social media law that rights group said could further tighten the government’s grip on freedom of expression.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had pushed for the law after his daughter and son-in-law, who is a cabinet minister, were subjected to abuse on social media after posting about their new-born child.

The law compels social media companies with more than 1 million local daily users to set up offices or hire a Turkish representative, and store data inside the country.

Failure to comply with the law could see social media companies fined up to 40 million Turkish lira (£4.4m), bandwidth reductions and bans on advertising.

In addition, platform providers will be responsible for responding to requests from the government for content removal within 48 hours.

Critics say the most threatening measure in the new law is the requirement for social media platforms to store data on individual users within Turkey, potentially giving the government access to the private information of anonymous accounts.

The social media law is part of what critics have described as a harsh authoritarian turn for Turkey under Mr Erdogan. Up to 2019, Turkey had blocked more than 400,000 websites, according to the international freedom of expression group Article 19.

At the same time, the law is emblematic of the government’s frustrations and fumbling in its attempts to control the media narrative. As Mr Erdogan’s allies have taken control of mainstream print and broadcast outlets, young people in Turkey have turned away from them in droves, towards social media and hashtag politics.

One social media user warned that Mr Erdogan was only further alienating Turkey’s youth by attempting to restrict their virtual hangouts at a time of overlapping economic and public health crises.

“The youth of the country does not have jobs,” said the user writing on the wildly popular EksiSozluk messaging board.

“Those children have no hope. The only joy left in the hands of those hopeless children is to relax on Twitter and watch things they cannot do due to poverty on YouTube. Young people will not forget this and will make you pay the price at the ballot box.”

A report last year said that three-quarters of Turks under 75 years old were using the internet, and that was before the coronavirus pandemic drove even more people online.

The government has attempted to engage with young people via social media, but has stumbled badly. Mr Erdogan recently gave an interview over YouTube, but his team was forced to shut down the comments as the page was flooded with insults and dislikes.

Twitter last month shut down more than 7,000 accounts it described as state-directed propaganda glorifying Mr Erdogan.

Supporters of the law said that it would shield Turkish citizens from reputational damage.

“There is a choice here,” attorney AydinEgemen told the pro-government news channel CNN Turk. “If the state is a state, no Turkish citizen is different from any citizen in the US or Spain and the state needs to provide full protection. This law provides this.”

However, domestic and international criticism of the law has been harsh. The International Press Institute said the law is “poised to greatly expand digital censorship and threaten media freedom”.

“This law brings the Turkish censorship regime into the social media space,” IPI’s deputy director, Scott Griffen, said in a statement.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are yet to comment.

In recent years, social media companies have refused to abide by rules set in countries such Russia, India and Indonesia.

Restrictions on social media have largely failed in other countries. Iranians, faced with draconian censorship on the web, have become experts at using internet tunnelling software to circumvent the bans. Many migrate to messaging-based platforms such as Telegram that are more difficult to control. (Source: Independent UK)