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Turkish activists brace for Internet censorship

In Turkey, a new Internet censorship law is taking aim at digital dissent. The law has been met with fierce criticism. It could mean the end for one group of online activists that report on opposition protests.

On a historic thoroughfare in central Istanbul, demonstrators battled riot police and tear gas last week in protest of a Turkey's new, internationally criticized internet law.

At a sleepy Internet cafe blocks away, one of Turkey's leading Internet activists sat with tea in hand, wondering if the struggle was already lost. Hunched over an iPhone as he shifts through updates from the protest, Ergin - he no longer gives his real name - is founder of one of Turkey's largest "alternative" news sites.

Known as Otekilerin Postasi, or "The Other's Post," Ergin's network of volunteer activists provide detailed, minute-by-minute accounts of protests throughout Turkey, and is followed by tens of thousands of people on Twitter and Facebook.

Internet in the cross hairs

It is also followed closely by government authorities, who have pressured Facebook to close the group's account seven times - a practice that started after it gained over a million followers during Turkey's wave of mass anti-government demonstrations last year.

Police and protesters on the streets of Istanbul

"Otekilerin Postasi" reports on protests in Turkey

"We get closed down, we open again. People want sources outside of the heavily censored media," says Ergin, adding that he feels wearied by personal suspicions of government surveillance and the occasional, anonymous threats he receives by phone and e-mail.

Already under pressure, Ergin's site would be easily targeted by Turkey's new Internet law. The law, which awaits the signature of Turkish President Abdullah Gul, would allow the Turkey's telecommunications regulator to block specific social media accounts or specific links on a website, and to do so without prior court approval.

"This system allows you to close a 'troublesome' Facebook account without provoking the outrage you'd get for blocking off all of Facebook," says Berhan Soylu, a representative of Turkey's Computer Engineers Chamber. "It also allows sites to be instantly blocked. You can respond to dissent in real time."

Web of corruption

The law also requires Internet service providers to store two years of customers' online and phone histories, and grants the government largely unhindered access to that information.

"Now we wonder: will our volunteers will still contribute, or will they be afraid of being 'discovered?'" asks Ergin. "Will the information data providers already have about us be collected and used to persecute us legally? We won't know."

Türkei Ankara Parlament Internet Sicherheit Kontrolle

The new law was approved in the Turkish parliament earlier this month

Internet activists also fear the appointment of Ahmet Celik, a former official at Turkey's National Intelligence Organization, to the helm of the country's telecoms regulator. The appointment came in December, when the ruling government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was faced with the largest corruption scandal in Turkish history.

That scandal has seen hundreds of phone conversations between Erdogan, high ranking officials, and businessmen leaked onto the Internet, seemingly implicating the prime minister's government in a web of opaque, quid pro quo dealings between party insiders.

'Last outlet for free expression'

Erdogan has said the leaks are the work of a "parallel state," a byword for prosecutors and police he claims are affiliated with Fetullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric now deeply at odds with Erdogan's government. Prosecutors launched a sweeping corruption investigation against Erdogan in December. Erdogan has, however, largely halted the probe by reshuffling thousands of police and clamping down on media groups that reported the scandal.

Those maneuvers have left the Internet as a "last outlet" for free expression against the government, said vice president of the Istanbul bar association, Mehmet Durakoglu. "The future of the last free space of expression in Turkey is being destroyed to spare the prime minister from revelations he should have the courage to face."

Brussels has appeared equally concerned, with Martin Schultz, president of the European Parliament, describing the bill last month as a "step back in an already suffocating environment for media freedom."

Muzzling the fourth estate?

The government may soon have the means for intense online censorship, and it has also demonstrated the will to use it. T24, an independent Turkish news portal, said last week that the telecoms regulator had pressured it into removing a news article about the corruption scandal from its website. The Turkish daily "Radikal" has reported that links to several leaked government phone conversations have been blocked by regulators.

People at an internet cafe in Istanbul

Internet activists fear their sites will be shut down

Ankara has long been accused of micromanaging the country's press, and jailed 40 journalists in 2013, more than any other country, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported last year.

Newspaper editor Fatih Altayli delivered a frank confession of media pressure in a live interview this week, stating, "Instructions rain down every day from various places. Can one write what one wants? Everybody is afraid."

Ergin and his group of activists, now acutely feel that fear: "We can't be fired from our job like a conventional journalist. Instead we fear facing criminal charges, perhaps for 'spreading propaganda for a criminal group,' a charge that's applied frequently to activists in Turkey."

Foreign and domestic rights groups have urged Gul to veto the legislation this month. "There's already so much deception and pressure in the mainstream press," said Ergin. "It's the only reason why our group exists. We hope the government steps back from making the situation even worse."

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