They were one of the last spaces of expression that escaped the control of the Ankara government. A law comes into force Thursday 1er October in Turkey to strengthen government control over social media. A month ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for “bringing order” to social networks.
“The law raises many human rights concerns,” Iain Levine, head of Facebook’s human rights department, commented on Twitter. Despite their concerns, rights defenders doubt that the Erdogan government can implement the strict measures provided for by law. “It is impossible in a country like Turkey to suppress the social networks that are so much a part of people’s lives,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, director of Human Rights Watch in Turkey.
According to the new legislation, social networks, with more than a million unique connections per day, like Twitter and Facebook, will have to have a representative in Turkey and obey the courts requesting the removal of certain content within 48 hours. In the event of non-compliance with these obligations, a sharp reduction in their bandwidth and fines of up to 40 million Turkish liras (4.3 million euros) are planned. These digital giants are also called upon to store the data of their users in this country in Turkey, but no binding measure in this direction was adopted when the law was passed.
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Erdogan’s aversion to social media
Even though his Twitter account @RTErdogan has 16.7 million subscribers, the Turkish president does not hide his aversion to social networks, which he threatened to suppress in 2014. The same year, Ankara had blocked access to Twitter and YouTube after the broadcast of wiretapping recordings implicating the Turkish president in an alleged corruption scandal. “The objective of the law is to threaten social networks by forcing them obedience or death,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb.
According to Twitter’s latest “transparency report”, Turkey was in the first half of 2019 the top countries requesting the removal of content from the social network, with more than 6,000 requests. Twitter did not respond to questions from Agence France-Presse on the follow-up it intends to give to the new Turkish law.
Turkey blocked access to 408,000 sites, 40,000 tweets, 10,000 YouTube videos and 6,200 shares on Facebook in 2019, according to Sevket Uyanik, an online rights activist. “Imagine what could happen after the entry into force of the new law”, he is alarmed. The Turkish head of state had already described Twitter as a “threat”, believing that the social network had facilitated the mobilization for the anti-government demonstrations of 2013.
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Access to critical information
Many Turks, especially young people, rely on social media for access to independent or critical information, in a landscape dominated by pro-government media. “You don’t see a lot of news about violence against women on television,” said Ayse Nur Akyuz, model and “influencer,” with 47,000 subscribers on Instagram. “But the information on feminicides spread in five minutes on social networks. “The recent restrictions aim to muzzle the dissent and block the flow of information,” says Emma Sinclair-Webb.
Twitter and Facebook are already closely watched by the government, and numerous lawsuits for “insulting the head of state” or “terrorist propaganda” have been brought on the basis of simple tweets. In early July, the Turkish president called for “bringing order” in social networks after his daughter and son-in-law were targeted by abuse on Twitter. “See why we are against social networks like YouTube, Twitter and Netflix? To remove these immoralities. They have no moral values, ”he said.
But supporters of the government also make massive use of social networks, especially since gatherings are prohibited under restrictions related to Covid-19, underlines Ms. Sinclair-Webb. “Shutting down social media won’t be a popular decision,” she says. If the government really enforces this law, it shoots itself in the foot. “