After a two-month ban, the Turkish government restored access to the video-sharing website YouTube in June 2014. This move was necessary to comply with a Constitutional Court (CC) ruling, which judged blocking the site as a breach of freedom of expression. In April Turkey’s highest court had ruled in a similar case, overturning the controversial ban on the micro-blogging site Twitter. While Turkish Prime Minister (PM) Erdogan criticized the judgment fiercely, Stefan Füle, EU Commissioner for Enlargement, commended the CC for “safeguard[ing] rule of law and respect for fundamental rights and freedoms”.
The two social media court cases illustrate the widening gap between an increasingly authoritarian government and the judiciary in Turkey.
YouTube ban and international reactions
The Turkish government began its campaign against social media prior to the local elections in March 2014. It imposed a block on YouTube on 27 March, after a recording of a security meeting had been uploaded, in which the Foreign Minister and intelligence staff discussed possible military action in Turkey’s war-torn neighbour, Syria.
Erdogan called social media the “worst menace to society“. Accordingly, Turkish authorities banned Twitter on 20 March 2014, and again without a court order, when leaked audio-recordings revealed anonymous corruption allegations in Erdogan’s inner circle, implicating the PM and his own son. Others allegedly pictured the PM and his close associates arranging state contracts and intervening in court cases. Within hours of Erdogan threatening to “rip [out] the roots” of Twitter, the site was down.
Both the EU and US strongly condemned the Turkish censorship. Commissioner Füle expressed concern and doubts about Turkey’s commitment to European values, and insisted “freedom of expression […] includes the right to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority. […]This obviously includes access to the internet.” Füle added that democracy needs open debate.
The Turkish Constitutional Court’s reasoning
- The complainants were directly affected by the Government’s blocking of YouTube.
- The Telecommunications Directorate (TIB) upheld the ban in spite of a restraining order from two lower courts.
- Restrictions on any kind of media, extensively used within the country, impede freedom of expression.
- As highlighted by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on freedom of expression: free speech should not only extend to ideas taken as positive and accepted by society, but also to those news and opinions that could be seen as something negative, incorrect, or disturbing.
Erdogan and his Government present the leaks regarding alleged corruption as part of a conspiracy to damage him and his campaign for both the local elections in March and Presidential elections planned for 10 August 2014, for which he will be running. Erdogan has accused a “U.S.-based Islamic cleric” [of] using a network of supporters to orchestrate an internet campaign and a police corruption investigation”. He has also referred to a CNN correspondent as an “agent”, on account of his coverage of anti-government protests.
Freedom of expression under threat in Turkey?
Over the last few years, the think tank Freedom House has proposed that the Turkish government and its agencies have gradually increased media manipulation, so that this erosion of freedom of expression went largely unnoticed by the people. Freedom House reports intimidation, mass firings of journalists speaking against the Government, buying-off or forcing-out media moguls, wiretapping and imprisonment of journalists, have become normal practice.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies states that a majority of media editors and journalists have turned to self-censorship.
The European Commission considers, in its 2013 Progress Report on Turkey, that although the legal framework on freedom of expression has been improved, problems persist: state officials put pressure on the media, self-censorship is widespread, critical journalists are fired, and websites frequently banned. The report holds the audio-visual regulator and the judiciary partly responsible for restricting freedom of expression and the media.
Hot on the heels of these controversial moves, Erdogan announced his bid for the presidency. These elections will be the first in which the Turkish people will be able to vote directly for the next President. If elected on August 10, Erdogan is expected to attempt to increase the powers of the President. For example, one of the President’s prerogatives is to appoint judges and rectors of universities. The recent social media ban gives an unhappy picture of a judiciary that could be under Erdogan’s control in the very near future.