Turkey’s journalists fear online censorship on Press Day

Journalists in Turkey believe that a draft bill that will introduce restrictions on social media will increase pressure and censorship as the country observed National Press Day on Friday, Deutsche Welle Turkish reported.

A draft bill introduced by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has passed the Parliamentary Justice Commission and is expected to be voted on before the Turkish parliament closes for the summer.

If passed, the bill may require online platforms to provide private user data to Turkish courts, effectively ending anonymity on the internet. It will also introduce the so-called right to be forgotten into Turkish law, in a manner journalists and legal experts have raised concern over.

“The draft allows for the scrubbing of newsworthy events from search engines under the guise of the right to be forgotten,” journalist İsmail Gökhan Bayram wrote for daily Evrensel on Saturday. “Those who already order lightning-fast bans of access will now decide what constitutes news, and what is included in this right.”

Turkey representative for Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Erol Önderoğlu told DW Turkish that celebrating Press Day in Turkey “could only be a bitter joke” for those who wish to truly be journalists.

July 24 is the day that newspapers were published with no censorship for the first time, in 1908 during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II after he declared the second constitutional monarchy in the empire. Journalists and activists have been observing July 24 as the Fight for Press Freedom Day since 1971, on the initiative of the Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS).

According to RSF, there are currently 93 journalists in Turkey’s prisons. Fifty two journalists were arrested in the first six months of 2020, and 19 were sentenced to jail terms.

“Today the government sees journalism as a job for enemies, a pastime to put Turkey in dire straits, or an indication that one is not ‘local’ or ‘national’,” Önderoğlu told DW Turkish. “This means one cannot report on the government’s wrongdoings, or favouritism in the economy so Turkey does not come to harm.”

The right to be forgotten, as cited in the draft bill, would “erase the memory of a country and the truth,” Nazan Özcan, chief editor for news website Bianet said. “A terrifying thought.”

Özcan told DW that the draft could lead to news stories being removed from the internet if the government does not approve of them.

According to the draft, social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook will face fines of up to five million liras ($730,000) for each individual claim of violations of privacy if they fail to respond within 48 hours.

“Due to the severity of the penalty and the high workload, appeals will likely be approved quickly,” Bayram said, “leading to a secondary censorship mechanism to be implemented by private companies.”

“I believe such repression and attempts at censorship will cause kickback, especially in this digital world,” journalist Yavuz Oğhan, who focuses on digital media, said. “Many governments have tried such practices, which were later changed.”