After Sozcu ban, Turkey’s War Against Free Speech Continues

Late last year, the Turkish government issued a tax fine to a leading opposition newspaper, Sözcü, which amounted to TL 14.5 million ($1.8 million). According to representatives from the paper, the penalty was based on unsubstantiated claims made by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Since Turkey’s failed coup in 2016, the Turkish government has been waging war against free speech. The country’s record on journalism and press freedom has declined significantly. Foreign media outlets have come under significant scrutiny, and the government has developed a reputation for jailing critics and anyone opposing the administration. The government’s efforts to quash dissent have impacted both online and offline speech. Activists and civil society organizations worldwide have called on the government to respect fundamental rights and guarantee the free and open flow of information.

Today, Turkey holds one of the world’s worst records on press freedom and journalist safety. According to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Turkey ranks 154th out of 180 countries. Since the attempted coup in 2016, almost 200 news outlets have closed, and the government has jailed approximately 138 Turkish journalists, many of whom are in pre-trial detention. Government-affiliated organizations now run nearly 95% of Turkish media.

The Turkish government introduced numerous legislative changes that significantly impact online and offline speech. In 2019, the government introduced a law requiring web streaming services and news broadcasters to obtain state-issued licenses. The law came after the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), a state-funded think tank, issued a report claiming foreign media outlets reflect significant bias in their Turkish-language coverage. Later that year, the government issued a court order that blocked 136 websites and social media accounts affiliated with individuals and organizations critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling party. The block impacted outlets such as the independent news website, Gazette Fersude.

Late last year, a Turkish court demanded leftist daily newspaper Evresnel to remove an article that claimed one of the president’s advisors forged their high school diploma. The court justified its decision using the “right to be forgotten,” a framework that asserts that any individual should be able to request the removal of content online that portrays them in a harmful or inaccurate manner. The right to be forgotten framework is widely implemented across the European Union. Some technology policy advocates view the framework as a mechanism for promoting user privacy. However, press freedom advocates such as the Committee to Protect Journalists have warned that governments could use the principle to suppress journalism, as in Turkey.

The right to be forgotten requirement is part of a broader law passed last June. The law requires social media companies with over 1 million Turkish users to open offices, hire locally-based representatives, and localize Turkish users’ data, or face significant fines, advertising bans, or website throttling. Additionally, under the law, social media companies must respond to court-ordered requests to remove or block content within 24 hours and user requests to remove or block content within 48 hours, or risk facing fines of between 5 and 10 million Turkish Lira. This raises significant freedom of expression concerns, especially as the government has begun expanding its use of this law to censor content online that is critical of the government. According to a Free Web Turkey report published earlier this year, 42% of news items blocked between November 2019 and October 2020 directly mentioned the Turkish president, his family, or officials of the AKP.

The silencing of critics and dissenters is everpresent in Turkey and independent unbiased media reporting is difficult to access. The Turkish government must heed the calls of activists and civil society organizations from around the world and respect free speech and press freedom.