When a team of 20 police officers demanded to search journalist Oktay Candemir’s flat earlier this month, he feared the worst: members of the Turkish media who are critical of the government are often arrested on spurious terrorism charges, and he has been in trouble several times before.
Instead, one of the officers pulled out a phone to remind Candemir of a jokey tweet he had sent a few days earlier, mocking a spate of new television shows about Ottoman sultans. “I was arrested under article 130, for insulting the memory of a dead person. They told me I was defaming the Ottoman sultans.”
After a night at the local police station in Van, Candemir was released on bail. He could now face two years in prison.
Candemir’s story is a particularly bizarre example of the capricious and heavy-handed ways Turkish law is applied to the digital realm. The internet is a place where the push and pull between Turkey’s liberal and authoritarian poles is keenly felt: social media sites are not banned but using them can land you in jail.
“It’s become a war on words themselves. Even using the Kurdish name for something is used as evidence against you,” said journalist Nurcan Baysal, who has also been arrested several times for Twitter posts. “Social media is a Turkish war zone.”
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has steadily consolidated control over traditional media during his 17 years in office, making social media channels the primary platforms for critics of the government and alternative news organisations.
Thousands of people are arrested for online posts every year in Turkey, usually over allegations of insulting Turkey, Turkishness or the president, or fpr supporting terrorism. A new law rushed through parliament this summer and coming into force this week marks a significant step up in Ankara’s efforts to control online content.
The new legislation compels social media companies with more than a million daily users in Turkey – such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google – to establish a formal presence in the country by opening an office or assigning an in-country representative who is accountable to the Turkish authorities, both legally and for tax purposes.
Companies or their representatives are then required to respond within 48 hours to complaints about posts that “violate personal and privacy rights”, and international companies would be required to store user data inside Turkey.
If the social media giants do not comply six months after the law goes into effect on Thursday (1 October), Turkish authorities will be able to ban advertising on the platforms, levy steep fines of up to £4m and throttle the sites’ bandwidth by up to 90%, effectively making them unusable.
The law also allows courts to order Turkish news websites to remove content within 24 hours, which would allow the government to comb through old stories to erase anything unfavourable.
Özlem Zengin, a legislator for the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), said when the bill passed in July that the new law sought to “put an end to insults, swearing and harassment made through social media”, acknowledging that the new measures would have to balance different freedoms. This, however, is not how Turkey’s beleaguered opposition politicians, lawyers and human rights groups see it.
“This is an unprecedented attempt to control the online information space in Turkey,” said Professor Yaman Akdeniz, a Turkish cyberlaw expert, who has taken cases over previous bans on YouTube and Wikipedia to Turkey’s constitutional court.
“Currently, in our compromised judicial system, we have judges who issue orders banning content or accounts, and they do it a lot: more than 400,000 websites have been blocked to date,” he said. “With this new law, they are finding a workaround in the censorship process, cutting out the public step in the courts, and issuing orders directly to the platforms themselves.”
Several sources told the Observer that both Facebook and Twitter are considering not going along with the new rules, either seeking to find a compromise with Ankara or relying on their users to switch to using virtual private networks (VPNs) to continue accessing the sites.
Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram, Reddit, TikTok and Snapchat did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The law will also face a legal challenge from the main opposition Republican People’s party (CHP) when it comes into force next week, although Akdeniz warned that the case could take years to reach Turkey’s constitutional court.
“We strongly urge the social media companies not to comply with the new law. It sets a dangerous precedent both for freedom of expression in Turkey and the rest of the world,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“If this works in Turkey, it is almost certain similar rules will be introduced in other repressive countries … just imagine Facebook being held accountable to the authorities in places like Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan.”