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Turkey's Controversial Internet Legislation Fuels Political Tensions

  • Dorian Jones

A man uses an umbrella as Turkish riot police fire water cannons and tear gas at hundreds of demonstrators who try to march to Taksim Square in Istanbul, Feb. 8, 2014.

A man uses an umbrella as Turkish riot police fire water cannons and tear gas at hundreds of demonstrators who try to march to Taksim Square in Istanbul, Feb. 8, 2014.

Opposition parties in Turkey have called on President Abdullah Gul to veto controversial Internet restrictions that were approved last week by the country's parliament and have increased the international community's concerns over freedoms and rights in the country

Gul is under mounting pressure to veto the legislation, which empowers the government to block websites without a court order and gives it access to user information for up to two years. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, called on the president to take a “position on democracy and veto the law.”

Pressure is also growing internationally.

"We are calling for the president to veto the new law," said Emma Sinclair Webb, senior Turkey researcher at the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. "It has passed through parliament very quickly without consultation, without sufficient expert input. And we feel the president now has a chance to really stand up for free speech by vetoing that law, and to uphold citizens' right to access information on the Internet and uphold the right to privacy."

Both the European Union and the Council of Europe have also called for the law to be withdrawn.

On Saturday night, police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse thousands of demonstrators protesting the new Internet law. Turkey’s main business confederation has also called for the law to be withdrawn.

In comments widely seen as signaling unease over the restrictions, Gul last month stressed the importance of freedom of the Internet, and especially social media. But the Turkish president is also a founding member of the ruling the AK Party.

Kadri Gursel, diplomatic columnist for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet and Al-Monitor website, says the president is performing a delicate political balancing act.

"Mr. Gul has cleverly positioned himself as the natural alternative to [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan from within the Islamist conservative political movement. And Mr. Gul cleverly does not do that by challenging Erdogan’s government. He is very government-friendly in signing government draft laws. He is not creating problems in terms of limiting or balancing the government’s power," said Gursel.

Adding to the pressure on the president, Erdogan, addressing a rally in Istanbul on Sunday, resolutely defended the new Internet law and slammed its critics.

"These regulations do not impose any censorship on the Internet; on the contrary, they make it safer and freer," he said. "Those protesting against the law are part of what he called a 'pornography lobby."

Erdogan also repeated a warning to the country’s business leaders, saying they will all face auditing by the tax authorities. Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of the Istanbul Policy Forum says that with the political temperature rising, Gul faces a critical choice.

"This will be a real yardstick of his intentions - whether he will challenge now the prime minister, Erdogan, or not," said Aktar.

Even if the president were to veto the Internet legislation, he would be obliged to sign it into law if the government passed it a second time unamended. But observers argue such a veto would be politically damaging to Erdogan and likely intensify the growing opposition to the controversial legislation.

The issue could also have consequences for this year’s presidential election, which neither the prime minister nor the president have ruled out running in.