Turkey Tested New Censorship Powers After Istanbul Blast
In the aftermath of a deadly bombing in central Istanbul, the Turkish government demonstrated its newly enhanced power to cut off flows of information and to assert state control over the public debate.
Social media services including Twitter, Instagram and YouTube were quickly made inaccessible after the blast on Sunday, and blocked until the following morning. Broadcasters reporting on the incident abruptly shifted to other topics as RTUK, the media watchdog, rapidly imposed a broadcast ban.
The restrictions highlight the expansive new powers that Turkish authorities granted themselves over dissemination of information, thanks to a so-called “disinformation bill” passed last month. Tabled by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party and its nationalist ally MHP ahead of elections next year, the bill made a swathe of changes to press and internet laws and criminalized the spread of “false information” online.
The measures enable the government “to further censor and silence critical voices ahead of Turkey’s upcoming elections and beyond,” Amnesty International said in a press release last month, calling their passage “a dark day for freedom of expression online.” Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom advocate, said Erdogan’s office has stepped up attacks on journalists “in a bid to deflect attention from the country’s economic and democratic decline and to shore up its political base” as the 2023 election nears. RSF was among a delegation of international press groups that jointly condemned the passage of the law after visiting Turkey in October.
Two officials told Bloomberg on Sunday that the bans following the explosion, which killed six people and injured more than 80, were introduced for “security reasons.” Turkey blamed the attack on a Kurdish militant group, and within hours, police arrested a Syrian woman accused of planting the parcel bomb on Istiklal Caddesi, one of Istanbul’s busiest streets. Sponsored Content Dig Into 250+ Circular City Success Stories Holcim
The disinformation law gives the telecommunications regulator, known as BTK, power to slash internet bandwidth. The BTK conveys the ruling to service providers, which have to implement the decision within four hours. If they fail to do so, they face as much as six months of commercial bans, bandwidth slowdowns by as much as 90%, and fines.
Separately, users convicted of spreading disinformation face a jail sentence of up to three years if found guilty. Broadcasters that fail to comply with bans can be fined as much as 3% of their ad revenues from the previous month.
Turkcell Iletisim Hizmetleri AS, Turkey’s biggest telecom operator by sales, and Turk Telekomunikasyon AS, both controlled by Turkey’s sovereign wealth fund, declined to comment on the restrictions. Vodafone Group Plc’s Turkey unit said it abides by laws in all countries where it operates. Meta Platforms Inc., owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, declined to comment, while Twitter Inc. didn’t immediately respond.
Despite the ban, some Turkish authorities, including Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya, used Twitter to broadcast to the public throughout Sunday evening. The restrictions can be circumvented with virtual private networks, or VPNs, which have become popular among tech-savvy Turks seeking censorship workarounds.
According to a study by the We Are Social agency, Turkey ranked sixth in the world by VPN usage rate last year, at 31%. Google Trends showed Turkish web searches for “VPN” surged after the attack.
A separate law passed two years ago required social media companies to appoint Turkey representatives, store data locally and abide by legal requests to remove content from their platforms, facing fines if they fail to do so.