Analysis

Erdogan Attempts to Use Coronavirus to Crack Down on Internet Freedoms

A bill presented to the Turkish parliament would require all social media users to receive an internet identity number from the government in order to use the platforms

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Erdogan attends a news conference in Moscow, Russia March 5, 2020.
Erdogan attends a news conference in Moscow, Russia March 5, 2020. Credit: POOL New/ REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Some of the clauses that sneaked into a bill formulated in Turkey last month to help coronavirus victims infuriated those who support freedom of expression and human rights. If the law had passed in its original form, all social media platforms used by a million or more people a day – like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok – would have had to appoint a legal liaison in Turkey, to whom the Turkish Justice Ministry could turn to demand the removal of undesirable content.

Such platforms would have been required to respond to government demands within 72 hours, and if they did not, they would risk heavy fines or reduction of their bandwidth by 50 to 95 percent. They would also have had to report every three months on content that had been removed. The platforms would also have had to retain information on their users and convey it to the government at any time. 

Public criticism did its work this time, and the bill passed without these draconian measures. Thus social media platforms avoided a painful dilemma – whether to leave Turkey and lose a large and profitable market, or obey the law and become intelligence agents for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But the users themselves cannot yet breathe a sigh of relief. Instead of that bill, another bill was presented to the Turkish parliament calling for all users of social media to receive an internet identity number from the government, without which they cannot use the platforms.

This bill, if it passes, would impose fines as high as $750,000 dollars to internet providers that do not adhere to the law, and the use of social media would be restricted only to those with identity numbers.

The internet in general and social media in particular have been in Erdogan’s sights for years now. It is believed that so far, more than 300,000 sites and some 150,000 email addresses have been blocked. The spread of COVID-19 has given the Turkish ministries of the interior and justice an excellent opportunity to expand their attack on social media users, and from March 15 to April 5 alone, some 3,500 complaints were issued on misuse of social media platforms.

This definition includes disparaging steps the government has taken to curb the coronavirus, reports of much greater numbers of infected people than the government has stated, direct criticism of Erdogan, and insults, in the government’s view, of ministers and civil servants. 

And the long arm of the state has not stopped at internet activists. Last week the prosecution demanded that Fatih Portakal, presenter of a popular television program, be sentenced to one to three years in prison because he said that banks might confiscate people’s savings so they can be used to fight the coronavirus. Other journalists who raised bureaucratic hackles in their articles or on Facebook or Twitter quickly found themselves taken to police interrogation rooms. “We must save the country not only from the coronavirus, but also from communications and political viruses. These are even more dangerous than the coronavirus,” Erdogan said.

In this image demonstrators hold placards with some featuring a picture of Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan during a protest against internet censorship in Istanbul
Demonstrators hold placards with some featuring a picture of Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan during a protest against internet censorship in IstanbulCredit: Reuters

Panic-stricken

And in fact, on Erdogan’s instructions, opposition mayors, such as Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and the mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavas, were banned from organizing fundraising campaigns to help the needy, the elderly and the sick, and were interrogated to determine whether they had broken the law.

In other cities the distribution of free bread to the poor was prohibited out of fear that the mayors of those cities would enjoy greater popularity than the government. From Erdogan’s point of view, it doesn’t matter that Turkey is not facing elections in which popularity has major political significance. The battle against the opposition and against his critics cannot rest for a moment even if it means serious harm to the needy. This is also an opportunity to settle accounts with mayors who made the mistake of winning local elections in 2019, mainly with the mayor of Istanbul, who swept the Justice and Development Party away from decades of control in the city.

Erdogan, Turkish pundits say, is acting panic-stricken. The picture is worrisome, with more than 3,300 people dead from the coronavirus, 120,000 infected, and the economy in freefall. Last week the value of the Turkish lira fell even more, and is now nearly 7 liras to the dollar. Growth, which had started to emerge in the last quarter of last year and showed signs of revival in the first months of this year, could end at a new low.

While the government says it will begin to normalize the economy in May, as long as international flights are not renewed and tourists continue to view Turkey as dangerous, normalization will continue to be no more than a slogan. Turkey’s foreign currency reserves are nearly bottoming out after the government spent billions on launching its economic reform, and now there is talk of taking a new loan from the International Monetary Fund, after Turkey fully paid off its last debts to the fund in 2013 and rightly showed that the release from that debt was liberation from the economic burden that had weighed it down for years.

But since then, Turkey’s national debt has grown; this year alone it has had to pay back some $170 billion in principle and interest. Foreign and local investors have been pulling out their money by the billions since the beginning of 2020, and new investments are in deep freeze. The governor of Turkey’s Central Bank did reduce the interest rate again last week, but for millions who have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus, and for those who were unemployed before the pandemic struck, this move was of little use.

The question worrying Erdogan is how the public will respond the day after the coronavirus. He is building his narrative of success now, and anyone who tries to undermine him will be considered a traitor.

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