Turkish activists battle internet censorship in court

Fed up with Turkey's government blocking and shuttering dozens of websites and social media platforms in recent years, a pair of digital rights activists are fighting back, media-focused news outlet journo.com.tr reported.

When two members of a banned communist group kidnapped a prosecutor from his office in Istanbul in 2015, they posted photos of their hostage held at gunpoint on the image-sharing site imgur.com. In the subsequent rescue attempt, the kidnappers and their victim, Mehmet Selim Kiraz, were all killed. Not long after, a Turkish court blocked access to imgur.com in Turkey.

It has become a familiar pattern for Ankara in its broad crackdown on freedom of speech; any website or other platform that enables criticism or other attacks on Turkey and Turkish officials is either blocked or shuttered by the authorities, who cite counter-terrorism measures, said journo.com.tr. 

Wikipedia has been blocked since April 2017 after content alleging the Turkish government supported militant groups in Syria appeared on the site and could not be removed. Today, people in Turkey can only access Wikipedia, and a host of other popular sites, including Ahval News, via a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

Internet censorship is becoming part of everyday life in Turkey, where the government currently blocks more than 220,000 Internet sites and more than 150,000 URLs.

Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, and Kerem Altıparmak, a human rights activist and law professor who recently resigned from Ankara University, are looking to change all this. They are suing the government over the imgur.com case, and have challenged more than 100 court decisions to block websites in Turkey.

“Blocking the whole website because of one image is against both Turkey’s constitutional court and ECHR (European Court of Human Rights) decisions, and a measure that is way too harsh,” Akdeniz said.

A handful of their petitions have been successful. For instance, when the Turkish government wanted to block access to Twitter and YouTube due to several videos and tweets that the authorities claimed were illegal, Akdeniz and Altiparmak took these cases to the Constitutional Court of Turkey and the ECHR.

The latter ruled that both decisions were a violation of freedom of expression and that the ban should be removed. In this case, the Turkish authorities respected the ECHR’s decision and the ban on Twitter and YouTube was lifted.

“The government sees the internet as its last battleground and the pressure will not cease any time soon,” Akdeniz said. “That’s why fighting censorship in court is very important. Even if we don’t achieve any results, a record will remain of the enormous scale of the internet censorship we are witnessing in Turkey today.”

Şevket Uyanık, from the Common Knowledge and Communication Association, recalled that in 2011, when a law was introduced handing internet control to the government, tens of thousands came out in protest. Things are different today. 

“Our society has accepted censorship and auto-censorship as something normal and that is really worrying,” he said. “Instead of fighting censorship, people are finding a way around it, with the help of VPN or other services, but that’s not enough.”

In one recent week – November 12-19, 2018 – Turkey's Interior Ministry investigated the owners of 324 social media accounts and initiated legal action against 280 of them. Still the Turkish public remains largely silent, says Uyanık.

“I try to talk about (internet censorship in Turkey) at national and international conferences, in order to raise awareness,” he said. “Digital activists, NGOs, and academia have to fight together against this kind of censorship.”