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Turkish opposition politicians and activists have made great use of the internet to circumvent state control of the mainstream media. They are alarmed by government plans to crack down even more on online platforms.
In the almost 20 years that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been in power, he has succeeded in bringing newspapers and television stations largely under his government's control. In reaction, opposition politicians, activists and critics have resorted to the social networks to create an alternative media landscape and public realm.
Activists use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other such platforms to draw attention to problems, opposition politicians use them to mobilize their supporters and smaller, alternative media outlets use them to disseminate their content.
But Erdogan and his government are now tightening their grip on the internet. Though they have clamped down heavily on social media in recent years, the next blow will be even harsher.
The government, along with the Turkish presidential communications directorate and the media regulator RTÜK, is planning a social media directorate to combat "fake news, disinformation, provocation and lynch justice in the social networks." Violations will be punishable by fines and detention. According to government sources, the law proposal is currently being drafted.
"There have been complaints from all sections of society," Naci Bostanci, Group Deputy Chairperson of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), told DW. "People and institutions are being targeted by fake social media accounts and fake identities. Language that disturbs the peace between people and in society is being used. […] We want a law that respects democracy, freedom and justice."
But the opposition doubts that these proposals are about promoting social harmony. Critics say that the government simply wants to expand its influence in the digital world. They fear that the directorate will lead to another wave of detentions and that censorship will become even more widespread.
The government denies this: "Undermining freedom of communication has never been on our agenda," Bostanci told DW. "We want to work with all the relevant parties, propose a regulation and prevent disinformation."
Communications expert Mustafa Adigüzel, from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), is skeptical. "They keep saying: 'Your child or your spouse could become a victim of fake news,'" he said, while pointing out that it was problematic that it would be the government parties which would decide what was supposedly fake or not.
"This is the start of a witch hunt on the internet. At the same time, the presidential palace will use social media to spread its information and views," he predicted. "President Erdogan's words are often the purest disinformation. Will they also prevent such statements?"
Last October, the Turkish government had already massively increased its control over internet content by amending the No. 5651 media law and obliging platforms with over a million users to open premises in Turkey. If Twitter or other social network providers refuse to do so, the Turkish courts can decide to reduce their bandwidth by up to 95%.
The new proposals will allow for fines of 1 to 10 million Turkish lira to be imposed on content considered by the government to be questionable. Critics say that this is yet another attack on freedom of speech.
But government representatives argue that similar laws already exist in democratic countries such as Germany, and Erdogan has even referred to the "German model." This is an allusion to the 2017 Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG), which aims to combat online hate speech and allows for the removal of posts that promote hate crime.
But critics of the Turkish government say that its policies regarding online media are more similar to those of autocratic countries such as China, Russia and India.
This article was translated from German.