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Turkey saw growing internet censorship in 2021: EngelliWeb report

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Turkey’s already poor record on internet freedom declined further in 2021 when more than 100,000 websites and domains were banned, Deutsche Welle Turkish service reported on Thursday, citing the 2021 annual report of the Freedom of Expression Association’s (İFÖD) EngelliWeb initiative.

Turkish courts blocked access to 107,706 websites and domains, including 5,436 URLs containing news items in Turkey in 2021 on the grounds that their content included “violations of personal rights,” mostly those of government officials or civil servants, according to the report.

The number of websites and domains blocked in Turkey in 2021 was up from 58,869 in 2020, according to the report, drafted by Professor Yaman Akdeniz from İstanbul Bilgi University’s law faculty and expert researcher Ozan Güven.

The total number of blocked websites and domains since 2006, which was 347,445 in 2018, 408,494 in 2019 and 467,011 in 2020, reached 574,798 in 2021, the report said.

In addition to websites, access bans were issued for 150,000 URLs, 8,350 Twitter accounts, 55,500 tweets, 13,500 YouTube videos and 9,500 Facebook and 9,000 Instagram posts since 2006.

The bans were issued based on Law no. 5651 — aka the Internet Act — which authorizes various legal and administrative bodies to ban access to websites and request content removal under a variety of circumstances and entered into force in 2007, and other provisions, the report said, adding that the Turkish government’s complex “Internet Censorship Mechanism” has continued to “operate and evolve more vigorously and actively than ever before” since 2007.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government increased its pressure on social media platforms after the Gezi protests of May 2013, which began over government plans to build over Gezi Park, one of the few green spaces left in İstanbul. Twitter emerged as alternative media and a networking tool among protestors, while the mainstream media hesitated to broadcast the popular protests at the time.

Since then, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has listed social media as one of the main threats to national security, and the Turkish government has expanded its internet restrictions to curb the availability of critical news and opinion and penalized users who committed so-called anti-state crimes in the online public sphere.

According to the report, a total of 5,436 Internet addresses containing news stories were banned, and content was removed from 4, 445 of them in 2021.

While 91 percent of the bans last year were issued by the government-controlled Information and Communications Technologies Authority (BTK), the remainder were imposed by the judiciary, the Capital Markets Board (SPK), the Ministry of Health and the Turkish Medicines and Medical Devices Agency (TİTCK), the report further showed.

A yearly report by Freedom House on global internet freedom revealed earlier this week that internet freedom continued to decline for the fourth year in a row in Turkey and that thousands of online users, including members of the political opposition, faced criminal charges for their social media activities during the period covered. 

According to the “Freedom on the Net 2022” report, Turkey is rated as “Not Free,” scoring 32 out of 100 points, down from 34 the previous year.

Earlier this week Erdoğan signed a controversial media law that attracted widespread criticism from rights groups and the opposition on accusations it will further cripple free speech in Turkey. The law, among other things, makes “disseminating false information” a criminal offense, with prison sentences of between one and three years.

Turks are already heavily policed on social media, and many have been charged with insulting President Erdoğan or his ministers, or criticism related to government policies on a range of issues.

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