Informers help Turkish police social media crackdown

(Corrects the reason for investigation into Nihat Koçğiyit.)

More people in Turkey are informing authorities about social media posts they think are harmful and the increasing number of detentions as a result further erodes freedom of expression and leads to self-censorship, experts say. 

In the first nine months of 2018, Turkish authorities identified 110,000 suspicious social media accounts, started legal proceedings against 7,000 people over their posts, and detained 1,500 people, 600 of whom were later jailed, pro-government Yeni Şafak newspaper reported. Some 24 data processing centres have been working with the police against cyber crimes to scan social media, it said.   

Kerem Altıparmak, a prominent human rights lawyer, said many Twitter users had been filing complaints on social media by simply sending mentions to the official Turkish police Twitter account @EGM to draw attention to content they deemed to be harmful.

“The real problem is not their complaints, but the fact that prosecutors take those complaints seriously,” Altıparmak said. “Legal action is really taken over those complaints. The police take them seriously. When they take them seriously, those informers get encouraged.”

Social media users can see on Twitter when they have been reported to the police, so even if nothing happens, it is likely to have a deterrent effect. As a result, people have become more wary of what they post and freedom of expression has been further restricted, Altıparmak said. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) stepped up efforts to control social media after the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the biggest anti-government demonstrations since the Islamists came to power in 2002. The crackdown gathered pace after the 2015 breakdown of a peace process with Kurdish rebels and a failed coup attempt in 2016. 

Lawyer Baran Çelik said authorities had also encouraged informers after the military coups of 1971 and 1980, but becoming an informant had now become much easier as all you had to do was send a tweet. 

The government began to issue bounties to informers on terror-related crimes in 2015 and a year later, police introduced an online form to make it easier for people to submit information on social media posts. 

Yeni Şafak explained to its readers how to make the best use of the online police tools.

“Do not forget to record the links of social media shares that support or praise terror and attach them to your notification. In case the terrorism-supporter who made this share deletes the related post or makes any attempt to delete it, do not forget to take a screenshot and attach it to your notification,” the newspaper said.

“People have been filing complaints for non-criminal acts and innocent citizens suddenly find themselves in detention,” Çelik said. “This scares people.” 

Hüseyin Boğtekin, another lawyer and a member of the Lawyers Platform for Freedom, said most of the freedom of expression related cases he had come across in the last four years were based on information provided by informers. 

Boğtekin said most of his clients either had closed their social media accounts or had locked them after online complaints. “Those who keep on using their social media accounts are wary of even mild criticism after complaints, though they were staunch opponents before,” he said. 

The Interior Ministry said 845 people had been arrested for social media posts criticising Turkey’s military offensive against the Kurdish-held northwestern Syrian district of Afrin in the first month of the three-month operation that began in January last year. 

More arrests have followed this month in the wake of Turkey’s cross-border offensive in northeast Syria, with nearly 200 arrested and 34 people jailed for social media posts criticising the nine-day military operation.

Burcu Özkaya Günaydın was one of the journalists arrested during the offensive after someone informed authorities about her posts on Twitter. A court later released Günaydın, but placed restrictions on her travel.

Günaydın said she had only shared news published by national media outlets and that while those outlets had not been investigated for the reports, people who had shared them on social media had been detained. 

“I was even charged for sharing the reports of the news agency I work for,” she said. “Now I have to think how this might be held against me.”

Nihat Koçyiğit, an academic in the western Turkish city of Izmir, also found himself under investigation for Twitter posts on a sexual harassment incident at 9 Eylül University. 

“Those cyber watchers are the paramilitary forces of today, but it is impossible to know when and from where they will attack,” he said. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.