As part of the effort to boost its image and role on the world stage, Turkey has over the last decade made a push to host a bigger number of international meetings and conferences, especially in Istanbul.
The setting makes sense, considering the city's obvious charms. But sometimes Ankara's eagerness to play host doesn't quite match the reality on the ground. Case in point: the ninth annual Internet Governance Forum, a large United Nations-mandated gathering, which is currently taking place in Istanbul at a time when Turkey is increasingly under fire for curtailing internet freedoms within its own borders.
In a sharply worded briefing issued ahead of the Forum, Human Rights Watch accused the Turkish government of having an "abysmal record of protecting free expression online." From HRW's report:
Turkish authorities have blocked tens of thousands of websites under the country’s draconian Internet Law 5651 over the last few years. The exact number remains unclear since the judicial and administrative procedures for Internet blocking are not transparent. In February, the government passed amendments to the law that expand censorship powers, enabling authorities to block access to web pages within hours, based on a mere allegation that a posting violates private life, without a prior court order.
The government has also tried to stifle social media. In the period before the March 30 municipal elections, authorities blocked access to Twitter and YouTube, which have been used to organize protests and call for reform. These actions followed a corruption scandal that erupted when multiple wiretaps of conversations among top officials were leaked via social media.
Amnesty International, meanwhile, is using the occasion to remind the world that Turkey is currently prosecuting 29 Twitter users for "inciting" people to break the law during last year's Gezi Park protests, despite the fact that their tweets contained no incitement to violence. From a release issued by Amnesty:
“It’s astounding to see Turkish authorities plough on with the prosecution of Twitter critics, even as they host a discussion on Internet governance where human rights are a key theme,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Deputy Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International.
“Such double standards on freedom of expression online are a particularly bitter irony for the dozens of Turkish Twitter users facing trial for tweeting about last year’s protests.”
And, ahead of the Forum in Istanbul, Freedom House has issued a very good report on internet regulation and freedoms in Turkey, looking at everything from the growing restrictions on online activity to the rise of citizen journalism in the country, a development that could push the authorities towards further controlling Turkish internet activity.