Freedom on the Net report: Internet 'not free' in Turkey, again

Freedom House has released its “Freedom on the Net 2020: The Pandemic’s Digital Shadow” report. Covering the period from June 1, 2019 to May 31, 2020, the report has once again said that Turkey’s “freedom in the world status” is not free.

Freedom House, a U.S.-based NGO that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, has released its "Freedom on the Net 2020: The Pandemic's Digital Shadow" report.

Evaluating Internet freedom in 65 countries, which account for 87 percent of the world, and covering the one-year period from June 1, 2019 to May 31, 2020, the report has shown that Turkey's "global freedom score" is 32 out of 100 and its "Internet freedom score" is 35 out of 100, which marks a two-point deterioration when compared to the previous report.

All in all, the freedom in the world status of Turkey has been once again indicated by the organization as "not free."

'Repressive legislation on social media'

The Turkey subsection of the report has shared the following overview about the Internet freedom in Turkey:

"Internet freedom declined this year in Turkey after the government temporarily blocked social media platforms, leaving people living in the south of the country without access to essential services and tools.

"President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) passed repressive legislation that imposed tight restrictions on social media companies, requiring them to have an in-country representative to respond to content removal requests, among other measures. Increasingly, the government harassed, arrested, and detained journalists, activists, and bloggers for their online activity, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Two earthquakes also damaged telecommunications infrastructure and temporarily left thousands without internet access.

"The AKP has ruled Turkey since 2002. After initially passing some liberalizing reforms, the AKP government showed growing contempt for political rights and civil liberties, and its authoritarian nature was fully consolidated following a 2016 coup attempt that triggered a dramatic crackdown on perceived opponents of the leadership.

"Constitutional changes adopted in 2017 concentrated power in the hands of the president. While Erdoğan exerts tremendous power in Turkish politics, opposition victories in 2019 municipal elections demonstrated that his authority was not unlimited."

Key developments over the past year

The Freedom House report on Turkey has also shared the following key developments that occurred from June 1, 2019 to May 31, 2020:

o Two earthquakes—in September 2019 and January 2020—damaged telecommunications infrastructure and left thousands without internet access.

o Social media platforms were blocked for a short period of time in February when the Turkish military launched airstrikes in northern Syria.

o After two years, Wikipedia was unblocked following a court order from Turkey's top constitutional court that deemed the blocking unconstitutional.

o More independent media platforms were blocked through government-issued requests: most recently dokuz8HABER and Oda TV's news website were blocked in June and March 2020, respectively.

o President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan imposed tight restrictions on social media platforms in a new law that requires social media companies to have a representative in the country to respond to content removal requests. The law also includes data localization measures.

o Hundreds of social media users were arrested or questioned for posting ostensibly false information about the COVID-19 pandemic.

o Citizen journalists and opposition members continued to be sentenced to prison for content they posted online.

'Obstacles to access, limits on content...'

Further in the report, "the obstacles to access", "limits on content" and "violations of user rights" in Turkey have been summarized as follows:

"Two earthquakes damaged telecommunications infrastructure during the reporting period and there was one short-term disruption to social media platforms and messaging apps during Turkish military attacks on northern Syria in February 2020.

"Internet penetration rates continued to grow, and speeds increased. However, the country's internet backbone remained highly centralized and the cost of internet access continued to be relatively high.

"Self-censorship has persisted. While users have turned to social media for news and information in recent years, websites continued to be blocked, including news articles. However, after two years, Wikipedia was unblocked following a court order that deemed the blocking unconstitutional.

"Journalists, scholars, and public figures who are critical of the government have faced coordinated harassment by pro-government trolls on Twitter. Regulations that came into force during the coverage period require certain online content providers to obtain licenses.

"Turkish citizens faced investigations and arrests for their online activities, with a large number of users being arrested for posting ostensibly false information about the COVID-19 pandemic online. Social media users were also targeted for criticizing the president.

"After the reporting period, president Erdoğan approved a new social media law that will further strengthen the regime's ability to censor online content. Surveillance remained a concern."