Turkish leader's next target in crackdown on dissent: the internet
ISTANBUL — Having already brought Turkey’s mainstream media to heel, and made considerable headway in rolling back Turkish democracy, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has set its sights on a seemingly innocuous target: a satellite television preacher named Adnan Oktar.
Religious conservatives in the government now say they want to shut him down. But critics say Oktar has become a convenient trigger for the government to pursue wide-reaching restrictions on internet content and broadcasters.
The real aim, they say, besides enforcing moral standards on the likes of Oktar, is to close off a final refuge for the news media and the political opposition as the government widens an already formidable crackdown on dissent.
Just three days after the government announced its campaign against Oktar, it introduced an expansive set of new internet restrictions that would affect millions of Turks who use the internet and social media.
“With Master Adnan as an excuse, extensive censorship coming for internet media,” one site headline warned.
The draft law has passed the parliamentary commission stage, and may go to a vote next week, legislators say.
Even before it is passed, outside authorities are raising alarms. Harlem Désir, representative on freedom of the media at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, urged legislators to revise the bill, saying it restricted pluralism online and could be incompatible with international conventions.
But a creeping control of the media has been a persistent feature of Erdogan’s 15 years in power. He has used every legal means, as well as extraordinary emergency powers since a failed coup in 2016, to steadily turn Turkey into an authoritarian system.
As Erdogan plans to run in an election for a presidency with newly enhanced powers, which may come this year, the new media law would put yet another heavy finger on the scale in his favor. It would allow him to mute whatever opposition voices have not already been silenced.
“It is just about control,” said Kerem Altiparmak, a human rights and media lawyer. “Considering what has been happening in Turkey, I have no doubt this is a hegemonic power, controlling newspapers, TV and the judiciary, that is now out to control the internet sector.”
The irony is that Erdogan is responsible for the economic progress that has made Turkey a largely middle-class country and allowed many to be educated and able to afford cellphones and the internet.
A former businessman and mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan began his transformation of Turkey by building on the popularity he gained with social programs that offered health care and pensions to all, and infrastructure projects that eased housing and transportation strains.
Initially, he oversaw democratic reforms as part of Turkey’s bid for European Union membership. But as Erdogan notched up electoral successes, he not only undermined his opponents but he also turned on various allies who had helped him rise to power.
His first target was Turkey’s once powerful military, which he emasculated with a series of arrests and high-profile trials that was completed in 2013.
Later, he turned against former allies within the Islamist movement, followers of the preacher Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the United States. They had led the campaign to dismantle the military and were demanding a greater share of power.
In 2013, Erdogan closed down the network of university-preparatory schools run by Gulen, cutting into a major source of finance and influence for his movement.
When supporters of Gulen attempted a coup in the summer of 2016, Erdogan answered with his nationwide crackdown, which is drawing increasing rebuke in Europe.
So far, Erdogan has detained more than 60,000 people accused of being Gulen followers and purged or suspended 150,000 government employees. He also used the opportunity to round up academics, journalists and political opponents.
The purges hastened the trend under Erdogan’s leadership of placing loyalists in government and public institutions. The police, judiciary and even universities have by now been transformed.
In fact, virtually all the levers of power belong to Erdogan, including much of the news media.
The government tamed the largest and most powerful media companies by imposing huge tax fines on them and forcing them to sell off assets, and pushing loyal businessmen to take over publications and television channels.
After the 2016 coup, 150 media outlets were closed down, and journalists were imprisoned at a pace that left Turkey second only to China, a much larger country, for the numbers jailed.
In 2002, when Erdogan became prime minister, pro-government businesses owned fewer than a quarter of Turkish media outlets, according to “The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey,” by Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at The Washington Institute.
By 2011, they owned about 50 percent, and by 2017 most of the mainstream media outlets were in their hands. Censors control content in government media offices, and private media outlets are issued strict guidelines.
“Erdogan can successfully edit out reality,” Cagaptay said in an interview.
The co-opting of the mainstream media has helped push Turks, especially the young and middle class, to the internet, which is delivering popular alternatives to a growing audience.
Besides a growing number of entertainment providers, including Netflix, and the Turkish equivalents Puhu TV and BluTV, there are several lively independent internet news outlets that publish through social media platforms and podcasts.
All of them could be targeted under an article slipped into the innocuous-sounding bill under consideration — “Tax Law and the Law to Change Some Laws and Decrees.”
As drafted it would force any outlets broadcasting via the internet to be licensed and would allow the Radio and Television Supreme Council to halt livestreaming and fine companies over content.
Ahmet Arslan, minister for transportation and communication, who denies there is censorship in Turkey, defended the bill before journalists at an event celebrating Secure Internet Day.
“We have to take measures about radio and television broadcasts if there is a wrongdoing about national security, and ethical values of the country,” Arslan said.
“Our aim is to bring a legal regulation, and prevent mistakes,” he added. “It is certainly not to intervene against any correct broadcasting, any work that is done in harmony with our values.”
The government already imposes restrictions on television shows, making channels edit out curses and blur cigarettes and alcohol. Shows viewed via the internet have so far escaped such controls.
“If there is any wrongdoing, there should of course be an intervention,” Arslan concluded. “This is the aim of the regulation.”
But Altiparmak, who is also a lecturer in law at the University of Ankara, said that while it was necessary to license television channels, because television frequencies were limited, the internet was limitless and so licensing was not necessary in the same way.
Instead, the bill would merely allow the government to block any outlet it dislikes by refusing a license without having to prove grounds of national security or ethics.
“The first thing is a judge will be able to block a website without having to show a reason,” he said. “Second they can bring sanctions against TV stations and fines on internet TV.”
The Turkish telecommunications regulatory authority, BTK, already regulates internet providers, removing content and blocking websites it disapproves of.
Wikipedia has been blocked for months, pro-Kurdish news sites are frequently closed down, and a leftist website Sendika.org has renamed itself 62 times to get around government blocks.
Indeed, the scale of the government crackdown has instilled such fear and suspicion in Turkey that many intellectuals and journalists have fled the country.
In the first weeks of 2018, as Turkey began a military operation against Kurdish militants in the northern Syrian enclave of Afrin, the police detained more than 600 people for opposing the intervention on social media or for taking part in protests.
Garo Paylan, a member of parliament for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party and a member of the commission studying the bill, warned that the government intended to curb the internet the same way it had constrained television and newspapers.
“Any kind of broadcast over social media can be included, which means millions of people won’t be able to broadcast,” he said in a telephone interview.
“Only supporters will be able to get a license,” he added. “And it would cost an amount. Many people would hold back from applying.”
The government could take action against anyone broadcasting without a license, although Hamit Ersoy, a member of Radio and Television Supreme Council, said the bill was aimed at online on-demand broadcasting and not social media, in comments to Anadolu news agency.
Paylan’s predominantly Kurdish party has especially suffered. Nine lawmakers are in jail, including the leader of the party, who was accused of terrorism. The party is effectively banned from all mainstream media.
Its legislators now broadcast parliamentary news to their followers via Facebook’s Periscope. Now those broadcasts could be stopped as well, Paylan said.
“If enacted, we will see the same situation for internet that the press and television fell into,” he said. “And this will detach us from the rest of the world more.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
CARLOTTA GALL © 2018 The New York Times
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