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.
Although Turkey's short-lived ban on Twitter is now over, that doesn't mean the service's trials and tribulations in Turkey are finished.
After the Constitutional Court in Ankara issued a ruling on April 2 calling for the block on Twitter to be lifted on the grounds that it violated Turkish citizens' freedom of expression, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted angrily. "I don't find it right and patriotic that the Constitutional Court has adopted such a decision," Erdogan said.
"While they are protecting an American company, our national and moral values are being disregarded."
But Turkey's Twitter-related troubles go deeper than just Erdogan's disdain for the social media platform. More ominously, there are currently several court cases taking place in Turkey that target Twitter users, accusing them of a range of crimes.
In Izmir, 29 defendants recently went on trial, accused of a range of "crimes" connected with last summer's Gezi Park protests. Reports the German press agency dpa:
Rights activists say the defendants, mostly youths, shared information on social media platforms about the mass demonstrations that started in Istanbul and spread nationwide, but none of them broke the law.
"These types of tweets must be protected by the constitution and actually they are protected," Duygucan Yazici, one of the defence lawyers, told dpa. "These are political charges."
Authorities in Uzbekistan are taking their paranoia about the power of the Internet the next logical step, installing video cameras in private Internet cafes and requiring café owners to store detailed records of the websites customers visit.
The new regulations also ban Internet cafes from the basements of multi-story buildings. Since many Internet cafes are currently located in basements, this provision will significantly cut their numbers, forcing many to close immediately, thus curbing access to the Internet.
Reporters Without Borders annually includes Uzbekistan on its "Enemies of the Internet" list for blocking access to international media websites and websites critical of the Uzbek government.
Tashkent tries to offer its netizens’ alternatives. In February, developers unveiled Bamboo, an almost-exact replica of Twitter. Developers have also launched Uface.uz and Sinfdosh.uz (clones of Facebook and Russia’s Odnoklassniki). But all this effort has met little success: Nothing seem to counteract ordinary Uzbeks' skepticism when it comes to the quality of local products and the authorities’ intentions.
Turkish politics have entered a surreal vortex where every day produces evermore shocking developments in such a dizzying rate that yesterday's mind-blowing news is quickly forgotten.
Today is a perfect example: it started with with the unsettling sounds of a Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking at an election rally with a voice so strained that he sounded like he had just inhaled a balloonful of helium, moved on to the truly shocking news of the posting online of a recording of a high-level national security meeting where a possible false flag operation to allow Turkey to invade Syria was discussed, and then ended with the announcement that access to YouTube (where the recording was posted) had just been blocked by the government. In other words, just another day in today's Turkey.
What does Turkey have in common with Iran, North Korea, China and Cuba? As of last night, the NATO member and European Union candidate had joined those four other countries with dismal freedom of expression records as one of the few nations to have instituted a total ban on access to Twitter. Turkish Twitter users have been quick to circumvent the block, but the move marks yet another disturbing anti-democratic turn for the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The block on Twitter access started late yesterday, just a few weeks after the government passed a new internet law that gives it enhanced powers to shut websites down and only hours after Erdogan vowed at a campaign rally to "eradicate" Twitter, which has been playing a prominent role in recent weeks as the conduit for links to leaked phone calls and documents connecting the PM and other official to corrupt activity. The Hurriyet Daily News provides some interesting background on how the new internet law was used to put the Twitter block in place through executive order, rather than a court action:
Twitter, the social media platform with 12 million Turkish users, has been blocked by the Communication Technologies Institution (BTK), working under the Ministry of Transport, Maritime and Communication.
Police escorted Zeynalov and his wife, Sevda Nur Arslan, a Turkish citizen, to the airport on February 9 after officials deemed his presence in Turkey “detrimental to public security,” Today’s Zaman reported. Zeynalov claims that he had linked to news reports from his Twitter account about the corruption scandal targeting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, which is notoriously thin-skinned toward public criticism.
At the request of the prime minister’s office, Turkish security agencies traced the tweets to Zeynalov’s account. Erdoğan filed a criminal complaint against Zeynalov, accusing him of stoking “hatred and animosity."
Over the last decade, the Turkish government has instituted a series of increasingly problematic internet laws which, according to watchdogs, have given Ankara greater and greater control over online activity (Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Turkey 154th out of 179 in its "Press Freedom" index, has a good primer on the country's internet laws, here).
In recent weeks, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been fighting off a major graft case that has targeted now former ministers and several businessmen close to the government, has proposed new internet legislation that has raised even more concern and that led to a large protest this past Saturday in Istanbul's Taksim Square which was broken up by police using water cannons and tear gas.
To get a bit more background on the new law, I reached out to Yaman Akdeniz, a professor of law at Istanbul's Bilgi University and a leading expert on Turkey's internet laws. Below is our exchange:
Can you describe some of the more troubling aspects of this latest internet law?
Authorities in Tajikistan have ordered Internet service providers, again, to block access to Facebook, local news agencies report. The blocking orders (which this time also target the local service of Radio Liberty) have become so familiar in the past year that there’s little new to say. So let’s look at how the man in charge of Internet access has explained his thinking in recent months.
Last March, the head of the communications service, Beg Zukhurov, after denying any order to block Facebook, said his office had actually blocked the site for “prophylactic maintenance.”
Internet service providers have said they were ordered to block Facebook last weekend, along with three or four news portals, by the state communications service, after one of the portals published an article severely criticizing [President Emomali] Rakhmon and his government. When queried by news agency Asia-Plus, the head of the service, Beg Zukhurov, denied any order to block Facebook, but said the authors of offensive online content “defaming the honor and dignity of the Tajik authorities” should be made “answerable.” Tajikistan frequently uses libel cases and extremism charges to silence critical journalists.
In November, Zukhurov again flipped the switch and memorably called Facebook a “hotbed of slander” when he sought a meeting with the social network’s founder and chairman, Mark Zuckerberg.
"Does Facebook have an owner? Can he come to Tajikistan? I'd meet him during visiting hours. If he does not have time, I'd talk to his assistants,” the BBC’s Russian service quoted Zukhurov as saying. (Zukhurov's visiting hours are Saturday's from 10am to noon.)
Internet users in Uzbekistan have long circumnavigated draconian restrictions with the help of proxy servers – online pit stops that allow users to access blocked pages by concealing their IP addresses. But Tashkent has caught on.
Uznews reports that Uztelecom, the state telecommunications service, has started targeting proxy servers, too. Uztelecom, which controls access to all international phone and Internet connections, has begun denying access to websites with “proxy” in their URL addresses by blocking requests that use that word.
With one eye on the social media-led events in the Arab world, Tashkent has become increasingly wary of the Internet’s potential threats and has set its cyber police to work overtime. The cyber cops are, in turn, monitored by a secretive body -- the Expert Commission on Information and Mass Communications. This body was identified in Freedom House's Freedom of the Net 2012 report, in which the UzNet was described, unsurprisingly, as "not free."
The closing of the proxy route leaves Internet users depending on more technically advanced options to beat the blockers (or, for now, proxy servers that don't use the word "proxy" in their name). One option is Tor, free software that allows anonymous browsing. But Tor's site is also blocked in Uzbekistan.
UPDATE: On June 14 Asia-Plus reported, and local users confirm, the site is again available in Tajikistan.
Authorities in Tajikistan blocked access on June 12 to a widely read, independent online news service.
Dushanbe-based Asia-Plus is still publishing at news.tj with the help of proxy servers, but the content is not available to Internet users in Tajikistan. Users can, however, continue to access the site’s content on Asia-Plus’ Facebook page or through widely available proxy servers.
The head of the state agency in charge of IT and telecommunications, Beg Zukhurov, reportedly told Asia-Plus that the site was blocked because editors refused to pull comments that included slander and insults aimed at high-placed officials.
The website took down one comment Zukhurov found objectionable and he promised the site would be unblocked soon.
Asia-Plus regularly publishes material critical of the government of President Emomali Rakhmon, who has been in office since 1992. While the government jams some foreign news sites, it has not yet blocked such a prominent local source of news. The comments section of Asia-Plus is often full of wild innuendo and libelous anonymous commentary, as are comments sections on news sites around the world. Perhaps a reader wrote something that struck a particular nerve?