NEW YORK — When voice recordings leaked on YouTube recently, allegedly featuring Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayipp Erdogan instructing his son to dispose of large sums of money last year on the heels of a corruption investigation, Turkey’s mainstream press outlets were initially silent. But, the news raced through social media, building political pressure.
The government soon retreated into crisis mode as Erdogan lashed out at those responsible for the leak.
Behind the scenes, however, he must have been perplexed by the story’s quick spread. After all, blocking leaks like this was the driving force behind an Internet control law his party had just forced through parliament.
The legislation gives the government new powers to censor online content, which critics see as a clear assault on one of Turkey’s last corners of critical, unfettered speech—independent news sites and social media.
Economic threats, intimidation and other heavy-handed tactics by the government have humbled the country’s largest news organizations.
Journalists acknowledge that self-censorship is widespread; watchdog reporting or criticism of the government can put reporters at risk of being fired, deported or imprisoned. Under Erdogan, Turkey is regularly cast as one of the world’s worst abusers of press freedom.
As a result, independent sites and a new crop of citizen journalists have become vital news sources.
“In the future, people are going to be less likely to buy Turkish newspapers because they’ll only get 10 percent of the truth,” said Andrew Finkel, a founder of P24, a platform for independent journalists. “Their only refuge is independent media.”
Online news sites like T24 and vagus.tv have been subjected to censure and intimidation for refusing to accommodate the government, but their reporting remains far more independent than what’s found in the mainstream press.
The new law, approved last month, is not the first time the government has felt threatened by the Internet.
A 2007 law intended to protect children from pornography and violent images has been used to block upwards of 30,000 websites—going far beyond its original mandate. Ordinary sites, like SoundCloud, YouTube and Vimeo, have been blocked, but only at the direction of the courts.
Now, the Telecommunications Directorate, Turkey’s lead Internet regulator, can force Internet service providers to block any site within four hours of its request and without any judicial review.
Moreover, it lets the directorate censor with scalpel-like precision: it can block specific URLs within a site, remove critical comments following a news story or obliterate Tweets or Facebook post without shutting down the entire service, or even the individual profile.
Thus, it’s possible to make dissent disappear so discreetly that users won’t even notice.
“The whole idea is to silence critical voices,” said Asli Tunc, head of the Media School at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
The law also requires ISPs to retain user data for two years, including websites visited, search results and social media posts. And if requested by the Telecommunications Directorate, the government can hold the information forever, paving the way for permanent and widespread surveillance, say critics.
“The greatest threat here is that all activity will be recorded and we don’t know how that data will be used,” said Deniz Ergurel, a journalist and contributor at the newspaper, Today’s Zaman.
The government argues that the law will allow it to better protect people’s privacy rights. But many believe the rights in question belong to the prime minister and his allies in the Justice and Development Party (AKP). They rushed the law through Parliament following the Dec. 17 arrests of senior AKP members for bribery and money laundering.
Since then, the government has been closing ranks—firing legions of prosecutors and police, and blaming the AKP scandal on officials loyal to Fethullah Gulen, a self-exiled cleric accused of running a parallel government.
The Internet law was fast-tracked to remove leaked documents and recordings connected to the corruption investigation.
But the law was written so broadly that the government now has the power to block independent, online news sources–an increasingly important segment of the media landscape.
When demonstrations broke out last year in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, the 24-hour news networks initially ignored the protests to avoid antagonizing the government.
Citizens turned in droves to online sources, while protesters on the ground reported directly via social media. Organizations like 140Journos–a volunteer group of students committed to publishing uncensored news via social media platforms–rushed in to fill the information gap.
Caught off-guard by the negative coverage, the government responded aggressively. Fifty-nine journalists were fired or forced out for the tone of their reporting on Gezi Park. And the government learned a simple lesson–in times of crisis, controlling information, whether from traditional sources or new digital ones, is critical.
But, information traveling in nanoseconds is tough to restrain. Last week’s leak has already been viewed over 3 million times on YouTube.
It seems, according to Deniz Ergurel, that the government “has failed to understand the true dynamics of the Internet.”