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Tech companies asked to resist internet censorship ahead of Turkish elections

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With Turkey scheduled to hold local elections at the end of March, a group of international and local human rights and press advocacy groups have made a joint call to social media companies asking them to resist efforts by the Turkish government to impose online censorship.

Among the groups signing the petition were Human Rights Watch (HRW), ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the İstanbul-based Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), the International Press Institute (IPI) and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF).

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is notorious for intensifying its efforts to limit internet freedom ahead of elections, which many say prevents people from exercising their right to information and creates an uneven playing field for the opposition.

“Ahead of Türkiye’s municipal elections on March 31, 2024, ARTICLE 19, Human Rights Watch, and 20 other rights groups and journalists’ organizations jointly call on social media platforms to uphold the free expression rights of their users and resist state censorship. They should also fully disclose all government requests to restrict accounts or content and be transparent about informal government pressure to restrict content on their platforms,” the advocacy groups said, while calling on the Turkish government to cease pressuring online platforms to block content.

In a controversial move ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections in May, X restricted access in Turkey to certain account holders to ensure the platform “[remained] available to the people of Turkey,” seen by critics as giving in to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was seeking re-election.

The company said it was limiting access to some content in Turkey to keep the platform available to all the people in the country.

The accounts that were restricted by Twitter include those of Kurdish businessman Muhammed Yakut and investigative journalist Cevheri Güven, who had made shocking revelations about Erdoğan’s government, its ties to the mafia and its involvement in corruption.

The groups said a decision from the Ankara 9th Criminal Court of Peace in January shows the Turkish authorities’ readiness to escalate censorship.

On January 10 the X Government Affairs account published a January 6 order from the Ankara court with a list of social media content to be blocked on several platforms. The court order targeted 210 items including profiles and content on X, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok that relate to Yakut.

The court deemed the content a threat to “national security and protection of public order” under Article 8(a) of the Internet Law.

X had subsequently “taken action” on 12 accounts and 15 tweets among those identified in the court order. It did so despite acknowledging that the content should be protected under freedom of expression and that the company would challenge the order in court, indicating in its statement that these steps were necessary to prevent its entire platform from being blocked in Turkey.

“… the decision violated international freedom of expression standards and the platforms should not have blocked the content,” the groups said.

They also referred to amendments to Turkey Internet Law in 2022 as having resulted in social media companies’ greater willingness to bend to government pressure rather than use legal means to challenge censorship requests where they violated international human rights law.

The amendments made “disseminating false information” a criminal offense with prison sentences of between one and three years, raising concerns about the further deterioration of freedom of expression in the country.

“X and Meta’s admission that they have blocked content demonstrates this fear-driven response to the Turkish authorities’ escalating censorship demands. X cited explicit concerns about potential sanctions, such as service throttling. Meta made general reference to possible sanctions in their case study.”

“This approach undermines the platforms’ responsibility to respect human rights under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which include resisting pressure to restrict freedom of expression,” the groups said in their petition.

They also urged the social media companies to take some steps, in consultation with civil society organizations and impacted communities, in order to not bow to the Turkish government’s efforts at censorship while also giving recommendations to the government as the primary duty bearer to ensure the right to freedom of expression and free and fair elections.

Turkey, where internet freedom has steadily declined over the past decade, ranks among the “not free” countries concerning online freedoms, according to a report released by the US-based nonprofit Freedom House in October.

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