WASHINGTON - For Turkish journalist Emre Kızılkaya, social media is a necessity. He’s been using platforms including Twitter since 2008, tweeting during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in 2013 and when soldiers raided his newspaper building after the failed coup attempt in 2016.
But if Turkish lawmakers heed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s calls this month for greater control over social media, Kızılkaya and other journalists could lose one of the last platforms that allows them to report freely.
A draft bill — first introduced in April and backed by Erdogan — calls for large platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Google to appoint a legal representative in Turkey to handle court requests to remove content or provide the identity of users. Companies that fail to appoint a representative within 30 days of the legislation going into effect would face gradually increasing fines and bandwidth reductions of up to 90 percent, a Turkish legislator told reporters.
Proposals are a concern
Local journalists and digital rights experts say the proposals are a concern in a country that has limited space for independent journalism and where social media plays a key role in reporting on and sharing news.
“I check the pulse of the public [on social media],” said Kızılkaya, who is vice president of the International Press Institute's national committee in Turkey and project editor at Journo, a nonprofit news platform. “Social media is a part of history. Controlling it would mean to rewrite the history.”
Erdogan called for further controls on social media on July 1, the day after social media users posted insulting comments when his daughter and son-in-law announced the birth of their child. Police detained individuals alleged to have been behind 11 of the 19 accounts that criticized the family.
“These platforms do not suit this nation,” Erdogan told members of his Justice and Development (AKP) party. “We want to shut down, control [them] by bringing [a bill] to parliament as soon as possible.”
Erdogan called on lawmakers to fast-track the legislation. Lawmakers said Tuesday they were submitting a nine-article draft bill to parliament. It is due to be debated by the general assembly next week.
Ozlem Zengin, a ruling party legislator told reporters the draft bill would “balance freedoms with rights and laws,” adding, “We aim to put an end to insults, swearing, to harassment made through social media.”
Opposition parties said they were concerned the measures would further limit access to social media and independent news, the Associated Press reported.
Press freedom has been under assault in Turkey for years. Following a failed military coup in 2016, Erdogan’s government closed more than 150 news outlets and jailed more than 100 journalists, often on terrorism-related accusations.
Journalists deemed pro-opposition or who criticize Erdogan can find themselves in court, including on charges of “insulting the president,” and authorities have temporarily blocked access to popular websites, including YouTube and Wikipedia.
Reporters Without Borders says Turkey is conducting a “witch-hunt” against government critics and independent journalists. The Paris-based media watchdog ranks the country 154 of 180 countries, with 1 being most free in its World Press Freedom Index.
With traditional networks under attack, social media has become an important resource for journalists and media organizations, Kızılkaya said. Pro-government businessmen began to take over news outlets, which then saw audiences shrink. Now, many independent journalists and smaller outlets rely on social media for their work.
“It may be one of the reasons why the government wants to expand its control on social media,” Kızılkaya said. “Simply put, the digital domain is the last refuge of independent journalism in Turkey.”
Social media platforms are popular among the country’s population of 84 million. As of April, Turkey had 37 million regular Facebook users – those who access their account at least once a month – and 13.6 million on Twitter, according to data from Statista, a German online research group.
The legislation is not the first attempt by Ankara to try to control social media.
In the first six months of 2019 — the most recent information available — Twitter received 388 court orders for removal requests and 5,685 requests from government agencies, police or other organizations, the platform’s transparency report shows. Twitter said it complied in full or partially with 5 percent of requests.
Last month, Twitter permanently removed over 7,300 accounts that it determined were “fake and compromised.” Analysis found fake accounts, as well as some profiles associated with the president’s critics that had been hacked, were used to promote support for the AKP and Erdogan, Twitter said.
In response, the presidential communications director called the platform a “propaganda machine” and dismissed allegations that the accounts were supporting the ruling party.
The proposed bill has worrying implications, Raman Jit Singh Chima, the Asia policy director and senior international counsel for digital rights organization Access Now, told VOA. Such legislation sends a “symbolic statement” to news organizations, he said.
“[Governments] are saying ‘Look, comply with the request we’re making to you. Otherwise we're going to come at you with a law, change the law to make you more liable or to make it more expensive for you to operate’,” he said.
Other rights groups, including the International Press Institute and European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, condemned the proposed law as an attempt to “further restrict freedoms.”
“Turkey is obliged to ensure the right to freedom of expression and access to information,” a joint statement read.
Kızılkaya said that while the measures are troubling, he has hope for the future of independent journalism.
“Turkey's next-generation journalists are eager and capable to create a better environment for the freedom of the press,” Kızılkaya said. “They stick to journalism, and they insist on doing it in Turkey for the public good.”
Mehmet Toroglu contributed to this report from Washington.