April 20, 2024

Internet censorship before local elections – DW – 01/23/2024

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to increase confidence among his voters. “We will defeat the opposition in all its strongholds!” he declared a few days ago when he launched the local election campaign presenting the candidates of his AKP party.

In these elections, which will take place on March 31, Erdogan is especially interested in taking back Turkey’s economically powerful metropolises, such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Antalya, from the opposition. However, he does not seem confident of victory. Erdogan is well aware that voters in major cities are unpredictable, which is why these seats are so hotly contested.

Whoever controls the major cities wields considerable power. Together, the metropolises account for almost half of Turkey’s economic output. The AKP is therefore determined to win them back at all costs and is doing everything it believes necessary to achieve this, including censoring the Internet by imposing increasingly strict controls.

In December, it was revealed that 16 virtual private network (VPN) services in Turkey had been blocked without a court order based on a directive from the Information and Communications Technology Authority. They include popular ones like Proton, Surfshark, SuperVPN, and Psiphon. DW uses and recommends some of the blocked VPNs to avoid censorship in some areas of the world.

A VPN is a digital service that allows users to browse the Internet in an encrypted and protected way. They are particularly popular and widespread in countries with authoritarian regimes, where they are mainly used to access blocked websites and restricted social networks.

712,000 web pages blocked in 2022

According to the Turkish Association for Freedom of Expression, which has documented Internet censorship in Turkey for many years, more than 712,000 web pages were blocked there in 2022. The association’s annual report says that around 150,000 URLs, 9,000 accounts on Twitter (now These actions were taken in response to the Internet law that came into force in Turkey in 2007.

Turkey’s Internet Law has been amended 19 times since 2007: social media restrictions added in 2020Image: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Füsun Sarp Nebil, an expert in digital technologies, says that the passage of that law was the beginning of Internet censorship in Turkey. “Until 2013, there was some blocking of YouTube and Eksi Sözlük (a popular information site to which users can contribute), but there was not much censorship,” he says. However, Nebil explains that since the Gezi protests in 2013 and the corruption scandal that same year, the legislation has been tightened considerably.

In May 2013, environmental activists began protesting against the development of the popular Gezi Park in Istanbul. The protests, organized mainly online, soon escalated. They were followed in December 2013 by the largest corruption scandal to date involving Erdogan. Numerous phone recordings of confidential conversations were posted on YouTube that exposed dubious money transfers between government officials and shady businessmen. The Turkish government responded by making the Internet law even more restrictive.

“In the last 17 years, the government has amended the law 19 times,” says Nebil. In 2020, it was modified to include social media. In 2021 the so-called “disinformation law” followed.

Many experts describe the disinformation law as another instrument to suppress freedom of expression and the press. They say it creates an atmosphere of fear and seeks to silence all criticism under the pretext of protecting citizens from supposedly false information. The law imposes strict penalties on anyone who spreads misleading or “false information about the internal and external security…of the country.” The vague formulation allows for broad interpretation. A single position, for example, can be punished by up to three years in prison, a provision often used by pro-government prosecutors and judges.

Criticism of AKP ruler blocked

Füsun Sarp Nebil explains that the Internet law is often used to block criticism of the ruling AKP. Posts about corruption, failures or nepotism are quickly censored. “Last year, a letter from the prosecutor revealed that a block could also be obtained through bribery,” he says.

The government also does not want critical reports before the important local elections. Candidates running for your electoral alliance should not be portrayed negatively.

Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom ranking places Turkey in 165th place: only 15 countries are considered worseImage: Maurizio Gambarini/dpa/Picture Alliance

Digital technology expert Nebil says that by blocking the 16 VPN services, the government aims to exert maximum control over the Internet. Is this strategy being successful? Probably, she says. “If the government continues to do well in the elections, despite its numerous failures and its mismanagement of various crises, we must assume that its tactics are working.”

On the other hand, Nebil points out that the constant tightening of internet laws and service bans in recent years means that Turkish citizens are now good at overcoming them. As soon as a VPN is blocked, they switch to an alternative. “Compared to many other countries, in Turkey many people are very familiar with VPNs,” she says. “It’s a game of cat and mouse. Nowadays, we even laugh about it.”

Technological restrictions are another form of censorship

Nebil explains that the government is not only tightening the screws of censorship to silence criticism, but is also deliberately hindering the expansion of digital infrastructure.

As he explains to DW, in 2006 eleven companies acquired licenses to install modern fiber optic networks, paying enormous sums: between 100,000 and 200,000 dollars, depending on the region. However, the government repeatedly delayed the completion of the digital infrastructure, with the result that only a fraction of the initially planned progress was achieved.

“We saw the disastrous consequences of this after the big earthquakes,” says Nebil.

On February 6, 2023, two powerful earthquakes shook southern Turkey. More than 50,000 people died. The telecommunications network partially collapsed after the earthquakes, making it impossible to coordinate search and rescue operations and humanitarian aid.

This article was originally written in German.

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