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The new law that signals a new era of censorship in Turkey

Kaan Bayırakoşan

Kaan Bayirakosan 200x250The Turkish government has new demands from social media and digital platforms such as Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram and Twitter. If those platforms do not fulfill the requirements, they can be shut down by the government. 2021 will be the year we will see whether such platforms will adapt themselves to the regulations or be blocked in Turkey.

Social media has been one of the most discussed topics in Turkey during last year. On July 1, President Erdoğan stated that they were planning to shut down and control social media, adding that they are morally against platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, and Netflix. “These platforms do not suit this nation. We want to shut down, control them by bringing it to the parliament as soon as possible.” This speech invoked a wide reaction on Twitter and #SosyalMedyamaDokunma (#DoNotTouchMySocialMedia) became a trend topic immediately.

Several hours later from Erdoğan’s speech, the Presidency Directorate of Communications published a statement saying that the President’s words about “shutting down” were taken out of the context but confirming the existence of a new arrangement. “Certain social media platforms violate the rights of our citizens today. At the same time, those platforms uncontrollably make profits in our country and continue their operations immune to any tax obligations. We are taking necessary steps to ensure that internet and social media companies establish legal and financial representation in our country”.

New social media bill threatens free speech

In the same month, a new social media proposal by the parliament was accepted for platforms which have more than 1 million users in Turkey. According to the content of the law, there are four main obligations for such services. First of all, said platforms must open an office in the territory of Turkey and place an official representative in it from the company. Secondly, said platforms must pay taxes as other business offices do. Thirdly, when the government demands user data, the platform must provide access. And lastly, when the government wants the platform to remove content, it must be removed in 48 hours.

If a social media network rejects to open an office, there will be a 5-step punishment system. In the first step, the company will have 30 days to obey the law after the first warning from the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK). If nothing happens, the platform will be charged 10 million lira. In the second step, this punishment will be 30 million lira. In the third step, advertising block will be implemented. If the platform still does not appoint a representative in 3 months, BTK will have the right to narrow the bandwidth of the social network provider to 50% by reducing the access. And in the final step, the access to the platform will be reduced by BTK narrowing the bandwidth by 90%.

The law has been in force since October 1 but it is not the only arrangement on internet media in Turkey. Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) also gained a supervisor position for internet content including Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube in August to control on any program in terms of moral values and to remove any episode from the platform in the country. Moreover, each platform must take a license by paying 100,000 lira.

Netflix, Amazon Prime, TikTok and Dailymotion met the requirements and decided to appoint representatives in Turkey but it seems that every social media company does not have the same intention to accept the demands. In December Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Periscope, Pinterest and LinkedIn faced the second step of the punishment which is a 30 million lira fine for each. If said platforms do not accept the law in 30 days, they may start to suffer from advertising ban this month.

Spotify is one of those platforms which was recently in danger to be shut down due to license problems. The platform finally accepted to make the payment for the license alongside opening an office in Turkey. According to former RTÜK member and Media Ombudsman Faruk Bildirici, the reason of the pressure on Spotify was podcasts, adding that “They aim to be thought-police there too. They have an allergy to free spaces.” On December 16, YouTube announced that they accept to appoint a representative in Turkey but also emphasized their policy against any governmental intervention. “This step toward compliance will not change how YouTube reviews content removal requests, nor will it change how YouTube handles or holds user data.” And this could be a base for potential problems in the future between the platform and the Turkish government because YouTube was banned in the country due to similar reasons several times in the past.

Noviot zakon sto gi otvora branite na cenzurata vo TurcijaSource: newsweek.com

Failing effort to get people back on traditional media

As a general reason of this radical law, the government usually points out the negative side of the social media such as lies, slanders and aberration. From this aspect, creating a safer environment on the internet and avoiding lynch attacks can be one of the main reasons. On the other hand, given the bad condition of Turkish economy, a regular tax income from such platforms can help the government to deal with the financial problems. Moreover, social media provides an independent area for different voices including opposition supporters. Unlike the mainstream channels and papers, such platforms give more opportunity for people in terms of freedom of speech. It can be said that Turkish people started to lose their interest and belief on the mainstream media, by spending more time on the internet. So the government may want to attract people’s attention back to the conventional media. According to Center for American Progress-CAP, 70% of Turkish citizens think that mainstream media is biased and unreliable. Also 56% of participants believes that the media is controlled by the government.

Although the government rejects censorship allegations by pointing out Germany as a reference, the opposition side emphasizes the violation of freedom of speech. Speaking to BBC Turkish, Onursal Adıgüzel, Vice President of the main opposition party (CHP) who is responsible for Information and Communication Technologies, says “This proposal will cause censorship. Shutting down a news website in Germany is not a common thing but there are hundreds of examples in Turkey.” According to İlhan Taşçı, a RTÜK member, the media was already under strict control by the government, and “this implementation will be written in the history as a regulation blocking the freedom.”

Since the new regulation was in the process in October, there has not been a total block for a social media platform yet. However, if it happens, this may lead to a massive change for citizens of all ages because social media has already become an important part of daily life in Turkey. According to October 2020 data from We Are Social, Turkey is among the top 10 countries that use social media networks in the worldwide ranking. To sum up the numbers, Facebook has around 40 million, Instagram has 44 million and Twitter has 16 million users in the country. Those statistics also put Turkey in the top position in the European ranking. Alongside those, especially in recent years, YouTube became almost a business sector in the country as now there are many famous YouTubers receiving income through millions of subscriptions and clicks. Furthermore, it is also a significant place for journalists who was dismissed from conventional media institutions, allowing them to found their channels and make news. For example, Sözcü, one of the best-seller Turkish newspaper and mostly read by opposition supporters, has been waiting for the official TV broadcast license for almost 10 months but it has still not granted with that by RTÜK. That is why they currently air their broadcasting on YouTube.

Independent thought seen as a negative

One of the main reasons on citizen orientation towards social media on this scale is the political climate in the country. The government has the support of conventional media such as newspapers and mainstream TV channels. The number of channels and newspapers which are seen as independent is limited, leading people to search for new broadcast organs. It can be said that this orientation became common as more people complained about not seeing all viewpoints on the news on TV channels and newspapers. For instance recently, Olay TV, a TV channel embracing an independent news policy motto, could survive only for 26 days on television. Süleyman Sarılar, editor-in-chief of Olay TV, said that the governmental pressure on the owner of the channel was the main reason of this shut down.

Currently Twitter is the most political social media platform in Turkey, giving public the opportunity to create an agenda and to spread their voice about various issues from salary increase demands to women rights. Indeed, apart from negative sides such as false news risks and insulting phrases, social media can be a very unique place providing a communication canal between citizens and politicians, supporting civic participation which is one of the main features in democracies. In Turkey, not only citizens but also politicians including most government members often use such platforms. And in the past, raising voices about social worries and issues had a deterrent effect on some specific legislation proposals opposed by the majority of the people. Given the fact that Twitter is the most reluctant platform among all to appoint a local representative, shutting down or decreasing the volume of this channel will damage this necessary communication. It will also reduce the voice of the opposition side that cannot find enough place in the mainstream media.

For the next elections which will be held in 2023, young voters are seen as game changers because Generation Z will have the right to vote for the first time in an election and their number will cover around 15% of all voters in Turkey. It is also believed that their response to the current government is not highly positive. Youth are the main age group that uses social media very often in Turkey and any governmental shut down on a popular network may be understood as a political intervention to their daily lives so this may also have an impact on their political tendency.

Social media giants need to make a decision

In 2021, social media networks will have to make a decision regarding the social media law in Turkey if the government does not soften established rules later for a compromise. They have around 4 more months in total until the last step of the punishment implements. Those platforms who have not obeyed the law yet are about the face the third step in this month, having advertisement ban. Recently some of the companies have accepted to law even though they were generally more hesitant to appoint a representative and pay taxes at first. So it can be a sign that others will follow them. Also according to some sources, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn are currently evaluating the demands. It is more likely that they can keep officially existing in Turkey. However, Twitter is expected to be much more strict due to its policies. It may take a longer time to see whether they accept the law.

To conclude, said companies may not want to lose millions of their users so they can obey the demands not to withdraw from the Turkish market. On the other hand, they may insist on their institutional policies by keeping the privacy of users and defy any political intervention towards their content. In that scenario, Turks might be devoid of such platforms, especially Twitter.

 

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Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute of Communication Studies or the donor.

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Friday, 26 February 2021

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