Reports about the former employee of a Turkish embassy caught with heroin in his vehicle, about allegations of international money laundering, about gender-based violence… In Turkey, the authorities have blocked access to tens of thousands of online news stories that could either prompt public outcry or displease President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The outlook has become even grimmer since the enactment of a law enabling stringent sanctions on social media in July.
One of the most recent examples of widespread censorship concerned the case of Veysel Filiz, a former employee of the Turkish Embassy in Brussels who was arrested on drug trafficking charges after police found 100 kilos of heroin in his vehicle. A court imposed a gag order on all news reports, commentary and social media posts about the scandal, which are now only accessible from Turkey by using Virtual Private Network (VPN) software. However, many free of charge VPN applications are also banned in Turkey.
Access bans are not limited to Erdoğan and his bureaucracy as they are also implemented for incidents susceptible to provoking widespread public outrage. The alleged rape of a 23-year-old woman, identified only by the initials G.C., was a striking example. Authorities banned access to all news stories about the case. The alleged rapist was an athlete from the national wrestling team and was tried and found guilty. Yet the access block remains in effect on the grounds of “the right to be forgotten.”
Access blocks on news of public interest
Prominent human rights jurist Kerem Altıparmak said the practice became more widespread after a social media law was passed in July. Speaking to the Bianet news website, Altıparmak said the censorship has nothing to do with the right to be forgotten.
“There is nothing to forget about this incident. There is a court judgment and a convicted felon. If he was acquitted, then it would be a different story,” Altıparmak said.
“In addition to banning access, the new law also entails deletion of the content and monetary fines for non-compliance with the decisions.”
It has been speculated that the access ban had to do with the fact that the perpetrator was a national wrestler. Similar things have happened in rape cases involving soldiers and police officers. When it emerged that 27 people, including policemen and soldiers, had sexually abused a minor in the predominantly Kurdish province of Batman, the news was also banned from access.
Erdoğan clean as a whistle, according to the Turkish Internet
It is impossible for an Internet user in Turkey to have access to a news story involving corruption allegations about Erdoğan. All such news reports were first blocked and then deleted from the websites’ databases upon court orders. Similarly, news stories about illegal arms trafficking with Syria and Libya, about oil deals with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) allegedly struck by Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak, or even about opposition leaders’ fierce speeches slamming Erdoğan have been barred.
Another issue that drew strict censorship was the debate surrounding Erdoğan’s university diploma. For years, rumors circulated that his diploma was forged and that he did not really have a university degree. Despite hundreds of reports, no university classmate of Erdoğan has thus far emerged. Marmara University has kept silent about the speculation.
Two weeks ago, the issue was brought up again as one of Erdoğan’s closest associates turned out to have been previously convicted over a forged high school diploma. The authorities banned access to a total of 125 news reports about presidential aide Hamza Yerlikaya and his conviction from years ago.
According to a report drafted by the Freedom of Expression Association (İFÖD), Turkey had banned access to at least 450,000 websites, 140,000 URLs and 42,000 tweets as of October 2020.
The Telecommunications Authority (BTK) was the institution behind most access bans with 237,086 orders between 2006 and 2019, and the Turkish Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) had imposed 129,124 orders until it was closed in 2016. A total of 32,741 sites were shut down upon court orders.
32 percent of Turks use VPN on the internet
According to research on real-life Internet users conducted by “thebestvpn,” a platform set up by VPN providers, Turkey ranked third in the world in the use of VPN technology, which allows access to banned websites and to cover one’s tracks online, surpassing countries with notorious online censorship such as China and Saudi Arabia. In Turkey, 32 percent of Internet users connect to VPN, above even China’s 31 percent.