A new report published by Freedom House, a nonprofit organization founded to advance democracy and human rights, internet freedom has declined in Turkey for the third consecutive year.
Turkey scored 34 out of 100 in the “Freedom on the Net 2021” report, while it had scored 35 in 2020 and 37 in 2019. Any country scoring below 39 is considered “not free” in terms of internet freedom.
The report touched upon Turkey’s new social media regulations which came into effect in October 2020. It recalled that platforms with over a million daily users are required to remove content deemed “offensive” within 48 hours of being notified, or risk escalating penalties including fines, advertising bans, and limitations on bandwidth.
“The law reduced social media companies’ ability to resist requests from Turkish authorities that are designed to further censor opposition voices, independent journalism, and nonviolent expression,” the report said.
In its overview for Turkey, the report said that online content deemed critical of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) or President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was removed from websites and social media platforms, and online activists, journalists, and social media users “were harassed both physically and online for their social media posts.”
It also touched upon the detention of Boğaziçi University students who criticized the government on the online platform Clubhouse.
“Criminal cases were carried out against those who posted undesirable commentary on social media, and the threat of online surveillance, harassment, and criminal penalties has contributed to the growing practice of self-censorship among internet users in Turkey. The proliferation of restrictive laws has further formalized censorship in the country,” it said.
“Freedom on the Net” project assesses internet freedom in 70 countries, accounting for 88 percent of the world’s internet users. This year's report covered developments between June 2020 and May 2021.
Turkey's ruling AKP is currently drafting a new bill that will include “disinformation” as criminal activity in the Turkish Penal Code, and even implement prison time of up to five years for sharing “fake news” on social media.
The legislation hints at Social Media Directorate offices being set up within Turkey's Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) and Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), both offices notorious for their strict restrictions on oppositional media outlets as is.
AKP executives have said that "fake realities" were heavily used for manipulating the public agenda, rhetoric that first emerged when President Erdoğan accused main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of dispersing fake news after he reiterated a falsely reported news story.
The current draft legislation is the second concerning social media that has come out of the ruling AKP government in the past few years, with the other forcing social media platforms to establish offices in Turkey.