Turkey’s Strict Internet Policy Draws from Political, Social, Cultural Anxieties

Dr. Bilge Yesil is an assistant professor of media culture at CUNY-College of Staten Island. In this post, Dr. Yesil examines the policies that guide control of the internet in Turkey.

Since 2013, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has escalated its punitive measures in the online sphere. In an effort to suppress critical opinion and contain the political fallout from the Gezi Park protests and the massive corruption scandal, AKP brought charges against Twitter users; blocked access to Twitter and YouTube, and passed stricter internet legislation. Although the Constitutional Court lifted the Twitter and YouTube bans and overturned some provisions of the new internet law, Turkey’s online communications environment remains subject to extensive filtering, blocking, and surveillance. The highly-politicized courts and regulatory agencies apply a mix of internet legislation, penal code, anti-terrorism, and intellectual property provisions online, and thus wield an ever-increasing amount of power over users’ ability to freely communicate online. Such strict control is unequivocally linked to the statist, nationalist, and religious-conservative ethos prevalent in the Turkish political culture. As I show below, the AKP government’s suppressive initiatives draw from political anxieties around national identity and national security, and presupposed specific cultural sensitivities regarding family, moral, and religious values.

The blocking of countless (pro-) Kurdish websites stands as an obvious manifestation of state ideology and Turks’ long-standing preoccupation with national unity. Concerned with Kurdish separatism and the disintegration of the Turkish state, the courts and the Telecommunications Presidency (TIB) liberally apply the provisions of Penal Code and Anti-Terror Law, thereby widening the net of punishable crimes online. (Pro-) Kurdish websites are often blocked on charges of “inciting sections of the population to enmity or hatred,” “committing a crime on behalf of a terrorist organization,” “making propaganda for a terrorist organization,” and “attempting to change the constitutional order by force.”

Another emanation of the statist, nationalist ideology can be seen in the application of Law 5816, which criminalizes insulting or cursing of the legacy of Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. The most notorious example of this was in the 2007 banning of YouTube. That year Greek YouTube users posted a few videos that portrayed Ataturk as gay. When the videos caught the attention of Turkish authorities, they requested Google to remove them— not only within Turkey’s territorial borders but all over the world— in order to “protect the rights and sensitivities of Turks living outside Turkey.” Google agreed to block the specified videos in Turkey, but refused a worldwide removal. Upset with this decision, Turkish authorities chose to block YouTube in its entirety. The prosecutor’s reasoning had been based on Law 5816 and on the premise that the videos had deeply offended the Turkish people and “hurt their sensitivities.” YouTube then remained inaccessible for approximately three years until November 2010. The ban was lifted only when a German-based company claimed copyright ownership to the Ataturk videos and removed them.

Another driving force behind the strict online regulatory framework is the religious-conservative ethos, which can be observed in a number of governmental initiatives. For example, when the AKP-dominated Parliament passed the country’s first internet Law in 2007, it was primarily in response to the increasing internet use among the adolescent population and the ensuing fears around teen sexuality, pornography, drug use, video games and violence. Concerns with moral values were also at work in 2011 when the TIB asked Turkish hosting companies to ban domain names that included certain words. The TIB’s list comprised of 138 words such as “gey” (the Turkish pronunciation of “gay”), “ciplak” (naked), “itiraf” (confession), “liseli” (high school student), “yasak” (forbidden), “pic” (bastard), and “31” (slang for male masturbation), and some English words such as “beat,” “escort,” “hot,” “nubile,” “free,” “teen,” and “anal.”

More recently, the safeguarding of religious values has come to loom large in the criminalization of online expression. In 2013 and 2014, courts opened cases against individual users based on charges of “insulting Islam.” The cases involved the world-famous Turkish pianist, Fazil Say; the founder of a collaborative online dictionary, Sedat Kapanoglu, and an unidentified user with the Twitter handle @AllahCC.[i] They were all charged with “inciting hatred and public enmity,” “insulting religious values” and “offending Muslims” on the basis of Articles 216 and 218 of the Penal Code. The courts issued a stay of execution for Say’s and Kapanoglu’s prison sentences but not for the Twitter user, who is to serve a fifteen-month prison sentence.

The AKP government has also co-opted the discourse of national unity and moral values as part of its strategy to rationalize the banning of social media platforms. For example, when it blocked access to Twitter in March 2014 for purely political reasons, it cited a court order that came after complaints had been filed by citizens––one of whom was a woman whose identity had been stolen and who was being subjected to defamatory messages posted against her on Twitter. Then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan rationalized the ban by claiming that it was all about protecting individual rights (and particularly those of the woman whose image had been circulating on pornography sites) and portrayed Twitter as a malicious, foreign company that was part of a wider conspiracy to weaken Turkey, its national unity, and social cohesion. As Zeynep Tufekci notes, Erdogan’s strategy was targeted to use the individual privacy complaints to “place social media outside the sacred sphere, as a disruption of family, as a threat to unity, as an outside blade tearing at the fabric of society.”Indeed, around the same time, Erdogan, government officials, and local AKP administrators were making statements that portrayed the internet as a source of corrupt morals. Even Erdogan’s wife, Emine Erdogan, called for a nationwide battle against “technology addiction” because it degenerated Turkish youth and families. In a public meeting, she compared computers and mobile phones to drugs, and said they affect the brain and sabotage family unity, and therefore must be controlled.

As this brief overview shows, Turkish government agencies and courts carry over penal code and anti-terrorism provisions to the internet, apply an increasingly stringent online regulatory framework, and draw the contours of online communications around long-standing political, social, and cultural anxieties. Though Turkish users deploy blogs, online communities, and social media as channels of cultural and political expression, the state power continues to exert itself through zealous prosecutors, moralizing government agency staff, and laws that criminalize online speech.

 

[i] CC is based on the Arabic expression “Celle Celaluhu,” which means “[Allah’s] glory is so almighty.”

 

Bilge Yesil is Assistant Professor of Media Culture at College of Staten Island, City University of New York. She is the author of Video Surveillance: Power and Privacy in Everyday Life (2009) and the upcoming The Turkish Model? Media, Democracy and the Neoliberal Islamist State. She writes about  Internet regulation, surveillance, censorship and mediated activism in Turkey.

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