Turkish Internet curbs ‘step back’ for media freedom

Opposition moving against the new law

Turkey drew fire Thursday over new Internet curbs portrayed as protecting privacy and the young but which critics say will stifle free speech and accelerate a slide towards authoritarianism.
The measures passed by parliament late Wednesday are the latest step by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to sound alarm bells as he seeks to bring the judiciary and police to heel and contain a deeply embarrassing corruption probe.
The government has defended the measures but in Brussels, European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said the curbs in the aspiring EU member, including the blocking of webpages without a court order, raised "serious concerns" and need to be revised.
European Parliament chief Martin Schultz called it a "step back in an already suffocating environment for media freedom", while EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said that Turkey needed "more transparency and information, not restriction".
"On the heels of protests last year and a corruption scandal, much of which has played out online, the timing ... raises concerns that a defensive government is seeking to increase its power to silence critics and to arbitrarily limit politically damaging material online," Human Rights Watch said.
Under the new restrictions, Turkey's Telecommunications Communications Presidency (TIB) can demand that providers block pages deemed insulting or as invading privacy -- and without the need for a judge.
The body will also be able to request users' online communications and traffic information from hosting providers, which will have to retain data for up to two years.
Lawmaker Faruk Logoglu from the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) told AFP the measures were "nothing but a way to intimidate the people, to tell them 'Big Brother is watching you'."
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has warned that the curbs could "significantly impact free expression, investigative journalism, the protection of journalists' sources, political discourse and access to information over the Internet."
Washington shared the OSCE concerns "on freedom of the media," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, adding there were also fears that "these proposed measures are not compatible with international standards on freedom of expression."
Yaman Akdeniz, law professor at Bilgi University in Istanbul, said the curbs would have a "chilling effect" in a country where Facebook and Twitter are platforms for political discussion rather than just socialising.
"I would call it an Orwellian nightmare," he said. "Turkey has become a step closer to countries like Iran, Syria and China, rather than moving towards the European Union."
All eyes on Gul
But the Islamic-rooted government rejected the criticism, with Lutfi Elvan, transport and communications minister, calling the accusations "unjust".
"What we want to do is to respond as quickly as possible when a person says their privacy has been compromised ... while avoiding bureaucratic procedures," Elvan said.
Erdogan, Turkey's all-powerful leader for 11 years, is openly suspicious of the Internet, branding Twitter a "menace" for helping organise mass nationwide protests in June in which six people died and thousands were injured.
But President Abdullah Gul, who on Tuesday met Apple chief Tim Cook, has portrayed himself as an Internet fan, tweeting for example in 2011: "Anyone who wants it should be able to roam freely on the Internet".
Human rights think tank Freedom House urged Gul to veto the new rules, saying they give "the government licence to censor the Internet whatever it doesn't like and whatever it doesn't want the public to know."
But such a veto is far from certain, however, since Gul is a close ally of Erdogan -- officially at least -- and their Justice and Development Party (AKP) is facing important local elections on March 30.
"President Gul... has avoided using his authority in the past even in the most controversial issues," Ozgur Korkmaz said in an editorial in the Hurriyet newspaper. "An exception for the Internet censorship law is highly unlikely."
CHP lawmaker Emrehan Halici said he hoped Gul would return the amendments to parliament, "but until now the head of state has in general approved all the mistaken laws adopted by the AKP".
Gul was yet to comment on the measures.