Article 26 paragraph 2 of the Turkish constitution guarantees freedom of the press and expression. At the same time, it legitimizes a regulatory system for “publications by radio, television, cinema or similar means”. Finally, in paragraph 2, the above mentioned rights of freedom are again undermined by a large number of arbitrarily applicable exemptions. At the same time, a vague formulation about the protection of “the reputation or rights of others and their private or family life” opens the door to restrict freedom of the press and expression. Nevertheless, the government often uses the argument “support of a terrorist organization” as justification for any repression. Accordingly, many journalists find themselves behind bars: at the end of December 2018, there were 68 in jail – no other country (followed by China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) imprisoned so many journalists. On average, jailed Turkish journalists spend more than a year in detention awaiting trial, and after that, imposing long prison sentences is the norm. In some cases, even sentences of life without parole have been handed down (“Turkey: Massive Purge“, Reporters Without Borders, 2018).
While Turkey has never been a model for guaranteeing freedom and human rights, the situation has worsened in stages after 2006, 2013, and 2016. The EU has criticized Turkey from early on, and the relationship is often strained not the least because of apparent shortcomings in freedom and human rights. Despite an association agreement in 1963 and a customs union at the end of 1995, the EU renounced accession negotiations in 1997 (to the annoyance of Turkey in contrast to the Eastern European countries and Cyprus), which in the short term led to a break in talks between the EU and Turkey. Quasi for reconciliation, at the end of 1999, Turkey was categorized as an “applicant country” by the European Council. At the same time, the European Council stated that the fulfillment of the Copenhagen criteria would be a prerequisite for the opening of accession negotiations or entry to the EU. The Copenhagen criteria include “institutional stability, democratic and constitutional order, respect for human rights and respect for and protection of minorities”.
In fact, at the beginning of the 2000s, Turkey was trying to meet these criteria. For example, a comprehensive reform of Turkish civil law was undertaken, the death penalty was abolished even in times of war, torture was forbidden, the freedom of assembly and demonstration expanded, and the rights of the Kurds were strengthened. Ironically, today’s Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) were behind many of these reforms. Nevertheless, the new standards were often paper tigers, because, in practice, it proved lacking. For instance, in its report last year, Amnesty International stated that torture is still occurring among people in police custody and that public authorities do not effectively prevent it (“Turkey 2017/2018“, Amnesty International).
The limited successes of the reform efforts were short-lived. As early as 2006, an intensification of the anti-terrorist legislation led to an increase in journalist arrests. There were also restrictions on the use of the Internet. In May 2007, Law No. 5651 on the regulation and the fight against crime on the Internet came into force. This law was initially promoted to combat sexual exploitation and abuse of children, prostitution, and gambling, but over the years it has increasingly been used as a basis to block all kinds of content the government finds disagreeable. Based on this law, in addition to blocking websites, access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Skype is repeatedly temporarily blocked, the connection speed is throttled, or access to the Internet is completely blocked (Burcu Selin Yılmaz, Hümeyra Doğru, and Volkan Bahçeci, “What If You Cannot Access the Internet in the Surveillance Society? Individuals’ Perceptions Related to The Internet Censorship and Surveillance in Turkey“, Journal of Media Critiques, vol. 3, no. 11, 10 September 2017, p. 74f). This law has been used as the basis for completely blocking all content on Wikipedia since the end of April 2017. However, the Internet is not only partially blocked: since November 2011, there is also a nationwide filter system. Finally, for the first time, in September 2012, an Internet user was sentenced to one year in prison for insulting the Turkish President Abdullah Gül on Facebook. The increasing censorship of Internet content is also reflected in the evaluation by Freedom House: since 2009, this rating has steadily worsened and has been rated as “not free” since 2016.
A further sustained restriction of freedom of the press and expression – both in the classical sense as well as on social media – took place in 2013. This was due to several events, which, together with social media and conventional reporting had a negative impact on the then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, his political environment, and the AKP. Starting in 2012 and particularly in 2013, several hundred Turkish officers were jailed for past or suspected coups or attempted coups. Overlapping, the conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) flared up from October 2011 to March 2013 (and later again from 2015). However, the most influential were the demonstrations starting in late May 2013 in Istanbul against a planned construction project on the grounds of Gezi Park. These demonstrations increasingly became a nationwide, anti-government protest and culminated in December 2013 with the publication of massive allegations of corruption against the AKP government.
The Turkish media have embarrassed themselves. While the whole world was broadcasting from Taksim Square, Turkish television stations were showing cooking shows. It is now very clear that we do not have press freedom in Turkey. — Koray Çalışkan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, cited in Constanze Letsch, “Social Media and Opposition to Blame for Protests, Says Turkish PM“, The Guardian, 3 June 2013.
Because of the lack of coverage by pro-government media, social media played a decisive role in organizing the demonstrations and protests for the Occupy Gezi movement (Erkan Saka, “Social Media in Turkey as a Space for Political Battles: AKTrolls and Other Politically Motivated Trolling“, Middle East Critique, vol. 27, no. 2, 3 April 2018, p. 161). As a result, access to social media and anti-government content on the Internet has been severely restricted. When incriminating recordings of the corruption scandal were published on YouTube and Twitter, the government reacted by temporarily blocking these services entirely. Erdoğan described social media as “the worst menace to society” and the government arrested Turkish Twitter users for the first time. Despite Erdoğan’s negative attitude towards social media, in the fall of 2013 the AKP announced that it wanted to build a 6,000-strong team of young, tech-savvy party members, which would silence government-critical voices on social media (like a Troll army; Erkan Saka, “The AK Party’s Social Media Strategy: Controlling the Uncontrollable“, Turkish Review, vol. 4, no. 4, 7 August 2014, p. 418–23).
The press in Turkey can hardly be called free. Almost all media companies are owned by large holding companies that have connections to political parties. Around a dozen journalists, who had reported positively about the demonstrators during the protests in 2013, were fired. After facing massive amounts of pressure in their media companies in 2014, hundreds of journalists who had previously investigated corruption cases quit their jobs. Law No. 5651, which was strengthened by the AKP in February 2014, expanded state monitoring capabilities. Internet service providers (including Internet cafés and free Wi-Fi providers) were required to keep their users’ activity data up to two years instead of the original one year. This data had to be provided at the request of the authorities without requiring any judicial order (Bilge Yesil and Efe Kerem Sozeri, “Online Surveillance in Turkey: Legislation, Technology and Citizen Involvement“, Surveillance & Society, vol. 15, no. 3/4, 9 August 2017, p. 545). However, parts of the strengthening, such as the two-year retention period, were reversed in December 2016 by a Turkish Constitutional Court ruling.
Starting in 2014, charges against journalists and students for insulting government officials increased. From the beginning of Erdoğan’s presidency at the end of August 2014 until the failed coup attempt in mid-July 2016, 1,845 people were charged with insulting the Turkish president – a criminal offense punishable by up to four years in jail under Turkish law. As a gesture of national solidarity Erdoğan dropped almost all the charges after the failed coup attempt (except for pro-Kurdish parliament members and the German satirist Jan Böhmermann). Since then, however, there have been new charges.
After the failed coup attempt in mid-July 2016, repression has once again noticeably increased. To date, more than 96,000 people (including 319 journalists) have been arrested, and around half a million have been investigated (including more than 2,000 young people under the age of 18), more than 150,000 people have been fired (including more than 6,000 academics and nearly 4,500 judges). In addition, 189 media outlets were closed during this period (“Monitoring Human Rights Abuses in Turkey’s Post-Coup Crackdown“, Turkey Purge, 19 April 2019). As of November 2016, 114,000 websites were blocked for political or social reasons. These include news agencies as well as online forums reporting on LGBTI issues, ethnic minorities (especially pro-Kurdish content), and social unrest or show anti-Muslim content.
Since December 2016, a large number of VPN providers and Tor entry nodes have been blocked. Public censorship can be bypassed with a reasonably stable connection if the Tor client uses OBFS4 bridges. However, this approach only works if web pages are blocked; there is no solution if the overall connection to the Internet is throttled or the connection is blocked entirely (Yılmaz, Doğru, and Bahçeci, p. 78f). Offiziere.ch is aware of a case in which a relatively reliable, permanent connection was made with 15 bridges. In TorBox version 0.2.3, the possibility to use bridges is experimentally implemented, but not yet in a user-friendly way (there is a well-documented configuration file for savvy users). A more user-friendly implementation will be provided with the pre-version 0.2.4 – planned for the middle of this year. Currently, the following VPN providers are available in Turkey: ExpressVPN, NordVPN, AstrillVPN, PrivateVPN, and CyberGhost. Like Tor with OBFS4, they also rely on obfuscated protocols. In any case, the VPN user is well advised to additionally use Tor over VPN so that the VPN provider can only recognize an encrypted, target-anonymized data stream.
Also, in mid-March 2018 ProtonMail was blocked. ProtonMail is an email provider located in Switzerland, which specializes in the free or cost-effective offering of user-friendly encrypted email communication. According to information from ProtonMail customer service the service was accessible again after a few days for users located in Turkey, but based on the information available to offiziere.ch there were at least repeated temporary restrictions. Particularly piquant is that the blocking was carried out by Vodafone Turkey, which is part of the British Vodafone Group. Once again there are companies in democratic states supporting censorship in authoritarian states.