Turkey's Government Crackdown on Journalists and Social Media Has Crippled Freedom of Speech

Turkey's President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, benefited from Twitter and Facebook but used his power to silence critics and journalists.
March 8, 2018, 7:00pm
Image via YouTube.

On a hot summer’s day in July 2016, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan narrowly escaped a military coup while on holiday in Marmaris, southwest Turkey With the airspace, intelligence headquarters, Parliament buildings and state TV controlled by the military, Erdoğan picked up his phone and FaceTimed the public, telling them he was safe and then took to Twitter and Facebook, to tell them to take to the streets to rally against the military coup.

And it worked. What Erdoğan had once called “the worst menace to society” had saved him. Twitter and social media more broadly had saved Erdoğan. But his embrace for social media, and more broadly freedom of speech was very short-lived. Erdoğan declared a state of emergency. What followed led to what many observers see as a near-dictatorial regime. His aim: "rip the heads off traitors," he announced during ceremonies that marked the coup's one year anniversary.

40,000 people were remanded in pre-trial detention during six months of emergency rule. Nearly 110,000 from the public sector were dismissed; entire universities were closed down and their graduates’ diplomas canceled; hundreds of media outlets and NGOs were shut down and journalists, activists and MPs detained.

In fact, in 2017, more than one in fourgender()employedAs()jobs()coverages()mediums()cc¨C11Cyear'2017¨C12C'location)) of the 262 journalists jailed worldwide in 2017, were locked-up in Turkey. And it’s not only journalists’ voices that are been attacked. According to Freedom House’s latest report, it’s everyone. Turkey is “not free,” its press “not free” and internet is also “not free.”

“Lawyers of #Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pressure @Twitter to delete content from 80 posts, including 11 of my 'toons, in a clear act of censorship! Is this the Turkish democracy? Why [does] Erdogan want to prevent the Turkish to see my 'toons?What's he afraid of?” Brazilian political cartoonist Carlos Latuff said in a tweet earlier in December.

And Twitter isn't the only blocked platform. The situation is so bad, it’s given birth to Turkey Blocks, an independent digital transparency project that seeks to identify and validate reports of internet mass-censorship in Turkey using a combination of digital forensic techniques.

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VICE Impact spoke to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) staff to find out what is being done and what can be done to help bring back the freedom of speech in Turkey.

VICE Impact: How are Turkish journalists, artists, activists who haven't been locked up yet, calling out this purge?

Johann Bihr, head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk: The Turkish civil society's resilience is impressive, but it is under unprecedented pressure. Pluralism has been reduced to a handful of harrassed, low-circulation newspapers such as Cumhuriyet, BirGün, Evrensel or Sözcü. Various networks of journalists and activists are continuing to observe trials, protest whenever it's possible, share information, help foreign observers.

They tend to organise themselves in informal coordinations, such as 'The journalists outside bars', 'I am a journalist', etc. The scale of the crackdown has fostered greater solidarity between various segments of the highly polarized civil society, although it is limited by fear and resentment against the previously government-aligned Gülen movement.

Özgür Öğret CPJ’s Turkey Representative: Legal certainty is a serious issue now in Turkey. Courts are breaking procedure by favoring the government. We saw it most recently when local courts resisted the Constitutional Court order to release two imprisoned journalists; Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan. Given this atmosphere, it takes more bravery than ever to speak out. Those who do choose to do so face great uncertainty, because any critic of the government could be singled out at any given moment. The reaction may be as mild as a pro-government troll attack on social media or as harsh as being put into prison for an indefinite amount of time. The lines are not clear and the purge has not really been systematic; therefore there is uncertainty of whether something will happen to you, when it will happen, and what it will be.

What role has social media played in the face of the loss of free speech?

JB: Social media has played a huge role in the face of the loss of free speech, as well exemplified during the Gezi protest movement in 2013. But the government has quickly reacted by extending its control on the social networks and passing draconian laws allowing to block any content (or indeed very platforms, as it has been the case several times with Twitter and YouTube) within hours, without a court decision.

Surveillance has increased and scores of social media users have been arrested in connection with their online activity. Lately, the government has started to block some censorship circumvention tools (VPNs, Tor network) and it even blocked the entire Internet access for some days in predominantly Kurdish-populated regions in November 2016.

ÖÖ: Social media remains one of the last refuge for free speech even though the government is battling it in Turkey and abroad. Turkey remains one of the top countries in asking social platforms to censor content and local courts are happy to charge people as terrorists over Facebook posts or tweets.

The EU and Turkey agreed to a “migration deal” to prevent irregular migration to the EU; this led to the return of hundreds of refugees and asylum-seekers. To what extent are EU governments sitting on the fence about these violations because of this deal?

Tom Gibson, CPJ’s EU Representative and Advocacy Manager: The EU is divided in terms of whether to take a stronger line on Turkey and be openly critical about human rights, including the imprisonment of journalists -or try to keep the channels of communication open, but be less critical.

Basically, the EU is a bit stuck when it comes to Turkey.

The Commission is looking to retain good ties because of the reliance on Turkey re: the migration deal. Both sides have good trade relations (the EU is Turkey's biggest trading partner; Turkey is the 4th highest country for EU exports). The EU needs Turkey as a strategic partner in the sub-region re: security and defence. Ankara knows that.

There could be some political leverage because of political concession, including visa liberalization - but this remains to be seen.

JB: What we can do is to move away from the EU-focused approach about Turkey advocacy. We need to emphasize that Turkey is also a founding member of the Council of Europe. As such, it has freely and willingly agreed to observe demanding human rights principles and to abide by the European Court of Human Right's jurisdiction. The annihilation of the rule of law in Turkey (recent lower courts' refusal to apply a Constitutional Court's decision in favor of jailed journalists, permanent state of emergency, new Constitution) cannot remain without consequences in this regard. We urge the ECtHR to come up with rulings as soon as possible in pilot cases of jailed Turkish journalists.

What are you doing to support journalists in Turkey?

JB: RSF representative in Istanbul Erol Önderoglu has been at the forefront of the battle for press freedom in Turkey for 20 years. The organisation's highlights include campaigns to release jailed journalists Isik Yurtçu (1996) and Ahmet Sik (2011), to properly investigate the murders of Mektin Göktepe (1996) and Hrant Dink (2007), to name and shame Army Chief of Staff Hüseyin Kivrikoglu (2002), to reform media and Internet laws (2000s), and to support embattled Cumhuriyet daily (2015-2017). The organisation has focused even more energy in Turkey in recent years, mobilizing against the media crackdown through numerous publications, advocacy meetings, public events, trial observation and creative campaigns, alongside with fellow press freedom groups.

What else can be done?

JB: A good start is sharing information. The scale of the crackdown, the level of absurd and paranoia reached by indictments and courtroom debates, are difficult to imagine. Journalists have been locked up in preventive detention for 1.5 years just for working with a 'suspicious' media outlet, receiving a call form a source, etc.

You can follow a few emblematic cases such as the trial on 17 Cumhuriyet journalists and workers (resuming March 9), the trial on the famous Altan brothers and fellow journalist Nazli Ilicak (resuming Feb 12), the trial on 31 former Zaman journalists (resuming April 5), the trial on RSF representative Erol Önderoglu and fellow human rights defender Sebnem Korur Fincanci for taking part in a solidarity campaign with a Kurdish newspaper (resuming April 18).

Timely information is available in English, and there’s also social media resourced like @JournosInTurkey, @FreeTurkeyMedia, @RSF_EECA, @article19europe, and more.

You can also sign petitions and call your government and MPs to task on the media crackdown in Turkey.