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22.2.14

Turkey's Internet Crackdown

President Abdullah Gul, Turkey’s head of state, has now joined Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the government’s assault on free speech. On Tuesday, Mr. Gul approved a new law, passed earlier by Parliament, that is intended to help protect Mr. Erdogan and his allies from a widening corruption scandal by tightening government control of the Internet. It would allow the authorities, without a court order, to block web pages under the guise of protecting personal privacy, and to collect users’ browsing histories.
Even before Mr. Gul acted, Turkey already had tough laws blocking thousands of websites, including gay dating sites and news portals considered favorable to Kurdish militants. According to Reuters, Google reported in December that requests from Turkish authorities to remove content from its sites had risen nearly 10 times during the first half of 2012. In the first six months of 2013, Google was asked to delete more than 12,000 items, making Turkey the No. 1 country seeking to excise Google content.
The new law is a transparent effort to prevent social media and other sites from reporting on a corruption scandal that reportedly involves bid-rigging and money laundering. In one audio recording, leaked last month to SoundCloud, the file-sharing site, Mr. Erdogan is said to be heard talking about easing zoning laws for a construction tycoon in exchange for two villas for his family.
The law is just the latest blow to Turkey’s democracy. After more than a decade in power, Mr. Erdogan has become more authoritarian and, as a result, increasingly embattled. The legislature has done little to stop him. Last Saturday, the Parliament, in a 20-hour session that involved a bloody fistfight, approved a bill that would tighten the government’s grip on the judiciary. On Thursday, Reuters reported that Mr. Erdogan had drafted a new law that would expand powers for his intelligence agency, including eavesdropping.
Freedom House, a human rights group, has warned that Mr. Erdogan’s government is increasingly employing “a variety of strong-arm tactics to suppress the media’s proper role as a check on power,” including buying off media moguls and forcing the firing of journalists whose coverage is viewed as unfavorable. Turkey has more journalists in jail than Iran or China, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have spoken out against these developments. The United States has also weighed in but not strongly enough. President Obama, who once had a close relationship with Mr. Erdogan, finally spoke to him on Wednesday after months of indirect communication. It was unclear from a White House statement, however, whether Mr. Obama had explicitly pointed out the perilous course Mr. Erdogan is on, a message he needs to hear. His Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party’s vision of inclusive democratic governance, which once found favor in the West and among his people, has largely evaporated — imperiling Turkey’s stability and economic growth and its compact with NATO.
After he signed the Internet law, Mr. Gul reportedly lost tens of thousands of followers on Twitter, while the main opposition Republican People’s Party appealed to the Constitutional Court to overturn the law. If this authoritarian trend is not reversed, the cost to Turkey and its reputation as a Muslim democracy will be great — as will be the cost to the West, which has valued Turkey as an ally. 

"The New York Times," February 22, 2014

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