Erdoğan turns to social media, the last refuge for Turkish journalists

If Turkish lawmakers heed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s calls this month for greater control over social media, journalists could lose one of the last platforms that allows them to report freely, Voice of America said on Tuesday.

A draft bill backed by Erdoğan calls for large platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Google to appoint a legal representative in Turkey to process court requests to remove content or provide the identity of users.

Companies that fail to appoint a representative within 30 days of the legislation going into effect would face gradually increasing fines and bandwidth reductions of up to 90 percent, VOA reported.

Emre Kızılkaya, vice president of the International Press Institute's national committee in Turkey and project editor at the non-profit news platform Journo, told VOA that social media is a necessity.

“I check the pulse of the public [on social media],” Kızılkaya said. “Social media is a part of history. Controlling it would mean to rewrite the history.”

The draft legislation was first introduced in April, but Erdoğan called for further controls over social media on July 1 - the day after insulting comments were posted online in reaction to his daughter and son-in-law announcing the birth of their child.

“These platforms do not suit this nation,” Erdoğan told members of his ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party. “We want to shut down, control [them] by bringing [a bill] to parliament as soon as possible.”

Özlem Zengin, an AKP legislator told reporters the draft bill would “balance freedoms with rights and laws,” adding, “We aim to put an end to insults, swearing, to harassment made through social media.”

But opposition parties said measures would further limit access to social media and independent news in Turkey, where press freedom has been under assault for years.

Following a failed military coup in 2016, the AKP government closed more than 150 news outlets and jailed more than 100 journalists, often on terrorism-related accusations. Many journalists also often face charges of “insulting the president”. Reporters Without Borders ranks the country 154th of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index.

The authorities have temporarily blocked access to websites including YouTube, Twitter, and Wikipedia. Social media platforms are popular among the Turkey’s population of over 80 million. As of April, Turkey had 37 million regular Facebook users and 13.6 million on Twitter, according to data from Statista, a German online research group.

Kızılkaya told VOA that independent journalists and smaller outlets in Turkey now rely on social media for their work.

“It may be one of the reasons why the government wants to expand its control on social media,” Kızılkaya said. “Simply put, the digital domain is the last refuge of independent journalism in Turkey.”