The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to boost confidence among his voters. “We will defeat the opposition in all their strongholds!” he declared when he launched the local election campaign a few days ago by presenting his AKP party’s candidates.
In these elections, which will take place on March 31, Erdogan is especially keen to win back Turkey’s economically powerful metropolises, like Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and Antalya, from the opposition. However, he does not seem confident of victory. Erdogan is well aware that voters in the major cities are unpredictable, which is why these seats are so fiercely 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 regain them at all costs and is doing whatever it believes necessary to achieve this, including censoring the Internet by imposing ever-tighter 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 Communication Technologies Authority. They include popular ones like Proton, Surfshark, SuperVPN, and Psiphon. Some of the blocked VPNs are used and recommended by DW to bypass censorship in some areas of the world.
A VPN is a digital service that allows users to surf the Internet encrypted and protected. They are particularly popular and widespread in countries with authoritarian regimes, where they are used primarily to access blocked websites and restricted social media.
712,000 web pages blocked in 2022
According to the Turkish Freedom of Expression Association, 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 URL addresses, 9,000 accounts on Twitter (now X), 55,500 tweets, 16,585 YouTube videos, 12,000 Facebook pages and 11,150 Instagram posts were also blocked. These actions were taken in response to the Internet law that came into force in Turkey in 2007.
Füsun Sarp Nebil, an expert in digital technologies, says that passing that law was the start 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 wasn’t much censorship,” she 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 primarily online, soon escalated. They were followed in December 2013 by the biggest corruption scandal to date involving Erdogan. Numerous telephone recordings of confidential conversations were published on YouTube, exposing dubious money transfers between government officials and shady business people. The Turkish government responded by making the Internet law even more restrictive.
“In the past 17 years, the government has reformed the law 19 times,” says Nebil. In 2020, it was amended to include social media. The so-called “disinformation law” followed in 2021.
Many experts describe the disinformation law as yet another instrument for suppressing freedom of speech and the press. They say it creates an atmosphere of fear and aims to silence all criticism under the pretext of protecting citizens from supposedly false information. The law imposes strict penalties on anyone disseminating misleading or “untrue information concerning the internal and external security … of the country.” The vague formulation allows for broad interpretation. A single post, for example, can be punishable by up to three years imprisonment, a provision which government-friendly prosecutors and judges often use.
Criticism of ruling AKP 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 swiftly censored. “Last year, a prosecutor’s letter revealed that a block could also be obtained with bribes,” she says.
The government does not want any critical reporting ahead of the important local elections, either. Candidates standing for its election alliance should not be portrayed negatively.
The 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 proving successful? Probably, she says. “If the government continues to do well in elections, despite its many failures and poor management 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 bans on services in recent years mean that Turkish citizens are now good at getting past them. As soon as one VPN is blocked, they switch to an alternative. “Compared with many other countries, many people in Turkey are very familiar with VPNs,” she says. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game. These days, we even laugh about it.”
Technological restrictions are another form of censorship
Nebil explains that not only is the government tightening the screws of censorship to silence criticism, it is also deliberately hindering the expansion of digital infrastructure.
She told DW that in 2006, 11 companies acquired licenses to lay modern fiber-optic networks, paying huge sums at the time: between 100,000 and 200,000 US dollars, depending on the region. Yet the government repeatedly delayed the completion of the digital infrastructure, with the result that only a fraction of the progress initially planned has been achieved.
“We saw the disastrous consequences of this after the major earthquakes,” Nebil points out.
On February 6, 2023, two powerful earthquakes shook southern Turkey. More than 50,000 people died. The telecommunication network partially collapsed after the quakes, making the coordination of search and rescue operations and humanitarian aid impossible.
This article was originally written in German.
Tyler Fields is your internet guru, delving into the latest trends, developments, and issues shaping the online world. With a focus on internet culture, cybersecurity, and emerging technologies, Tyler keeps readers informed about the dynamic landscape of the internet and its impact on our digital lives.