By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul
European Union officials supported the Constitutional Court’s decision to reverse the government’s ban on Twitter, even as web freedom advocates criticised on-going censorship of YouTube and other websites.
Turkey’s Telecommunications Directorate (TIB) unblocked Twitter on April 2nd following a Constitutional Court ruling the day before. The site was blocked on March 20th following Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pledge to “eradicate” the site.
The court ruling said the ban violated the right to free speech as guaranteed by Article 26 of Turkey’s constitution, calling the ban “illegal, arbitrary and seriously restricting the right to obtain information.” Andrew Duff, Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament, welcomed the court’s decision and TIB’s unblocking of the site.
“It is completely in line with EU standards of freedom of expression,” he told SES Türkiye. “Even if Tayyip Erdogan does not listen to the EU anymore, he must pay heed to his constitutional judges. Turkey must resolve its own problems with democracy and free speech.”
During a televised interview on April 2nd, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said the government and TIB defended the honour of the country by blocking access to Twitter.
“We wouldn’t have closed Twitter if it abided by court rulings. If Twitter doesn’t respect the court rulings as well as sovereign rights of Turkey, in that case Turkey will remind it of the court rulings and the law by taking such a step,” Bozdag said.
Erdogan also criticised the court’s ruling.
“We have to abide by the decision, however I’m not obliged to respect it. I don’t respect this ruling. This is not law, let me tell you,” he said during a press conference at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport before his official visit to Azerbaijan on April 4th.
Many Twitter users were able to circumvent the ban by using virtual private networks and other online applications.
The government blocked access to YouTube on March 27th, hours after an audio recording was posted of an alleged high-level government meeting on Syria. The recording allegedly features the foreign minister, intelligence chief and top military and foreign ministry officials discussing ways to create a pretext for military action in Syria.
In a written statement, Turkey’s foreign ministry said the recording was a “shameful attack” on national security, adding that parts of the recording had been manipulated.
An Ankara court on April 4th ruled that the YouTube ban was too broad and violated human rights, ordering it to be lifted as soon as possible. As of Monday (April 7th) the site remained blocked.
The YouTube ban drew criticism from EU authorities, who said such restrictions violate free speech and undermine Turkey’s membership bid.
According to the media reports, a scheduled meeting of the Turkey-EU Association Committee was postponed by the EU side in order to prevent further tension over internet bans and what some see as rising authoritarianism in Turkey.
Helene Flautre, co-chair of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, said the Constitutional Court’s decision shows the Turkish judiciary retains independence despite regressive reforms in recent months.
“The EU must stand firmly on the side of those who defend the rule of law and a fair and transparent justice. The decision of the Constitutional Court confirms other rulings, and it is of the utmost importance that the government complies with this decision,” Flautre told SES Türkiye.
“All European institutions have made clear on several occasions that freedom of expression and freedom of sharing information is one of the key points of the Copenhagen criteria. This freedom also extends to the internet: Turkey needs a new ambitious law, developed in consultation with all stakeholders, on the internet freedom and data protection,” she added.
Flautre also said blocking entire sites commonly used by the public is an unacceptable practice.
“Mechanisms for pre-accession provide consultations and sharing of best practices, and the EU is ready to co-operate fully with Turkey on these issues,” she added.
Access to more than 40,000 websites is still blocked in Turkey, according to EngelliWeb, a site that monitors internet censorship.
According to the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, 79 percent of internet users in Turkey use social networking sites, while 42 percent of social networking users share political views on the platforms.
Hannes Swoboda, chair of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, said the opening of new accession chapters between Turkey and the EU would underscore the EU’s standards of fundamental rights for candidate countries.
“I am glad that the judiciary does not support the political game of curtailing freedom of speech through banning Twitter and YouTube, and even Google IPs. I am indeed very worried in how far Mr. Erdogan is willing to respect fundamental rights of all citizens,” Swoboda told SES Türkiye.
“But to discuss these topics frankly we have to — as I have called for in the past — open the critical chapters in the accession negotiations. Only when discussing chapters 23 and 24 [judiciary and fundamental rights; and justice, freedom and security] will we be able to really see whether or not Turkey and the EU can find common ground on these crucial topics,” he added.
Istanbul-based blogger Ahmet Sabanci said the Twitter blockage controversy showed freedom of speech is a fragile concept in Turkey.
“The blockage over Twitter following a few showpiece complaints provides only a small reference about what we could witness in the future,” Sabanci told SES Türkiye.
“The censorship over the internet and the state monitoring in social media has reached a very dangerous point. The recently signed internet law aims at further restricting our freedoms and increases the monitoring of the governmental agencies, like TIB, over internet communication.”
Sabanci said he expects other websites to remain banned despite the Constitutional Court’s decision.
“In order to avoid the same bans again in the future, we need a new internet law that prioritises freedom of speech, rights of people to get information and to stay anonymous in using their accounts, as well as maintains the independent nature of the internet,” Sabanci said.
Yelda Gizem Unal, an Ankara-based lawyer specialising in internet freedom, said that although the Twitter ban is over, the blockage on YouTube, based on political justifications, is still on-going and undermines people’s trust on rule of law in Turkey.
“The interdiction of access for a whole video sharing site just because of one video posting is against the Constitution and the European Convention of Human Rights. It means that by unplugging the whole website, Turkey ignores the freedom of speech of all citizens,” Unal told SES Türkiye.
According to Unal, obstructing access to social media sites on the basis of arbitrary decisions reflects creeping state supervision of the internet.
“If state authorities want to bring some sanctions against illegal postings on internet, there is a need for a specialised court that has to give its decision based on legal facts and targeting only the relevant accounts, not the whole system,” she added.