Turkey

Not Free
35
100
A Obstacles to Access 13 25
B Limits on Content 11 35
C Violations of User Rights 11 40
Last Year's Score & Status
37 100 Not Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)

header1 Overview

Internet freedom declined this year in Turkey after the government temporarily blocked social media platforms, leaving people living in the south of the country without access to essential services and tools. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) passed repressive legislation that imposed tight restrictions on social media companies, requiring them to have an in-country representative to respond to content removal requests, among other measures. Increasingly, the government harassed, arrested, and detained journalists, activists, and bloggers for their online activity, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Two earthquakes also damaged telecommunications infrastructure and temporarily left thousands without internet access.

The AKP has ruled Turkey since 2002. After initially passing some liberalizing reforms, the AKP government showed growing contempt for political rights and civil liberties, and its authoritarian nature was fully consolidated following a 2016 coup attempt that triggered a dramatic crackdown on perceived opponents of the leadership. Constitutional changes adopted in 2017 concentrated power in the hands of the president. While Erdoğan exerts tremendous power in Turkish politics, opposition victories in 2019 municipal elections demonstrated that his authority was not unlimited.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2019 - May 31, 2020

  • Two earthquakes—in September 2019 and January 2020—damaged telecommunications infrastructure and left thousands without internet access (see A1).
  • Social media platforms were blocked for a short period of time in February when the Turkish military launched airstrikes in northern Syria (see A3).
  • After two years, Wikipedia was unblocked following a court order from Turkey’s top constitutional court that deemed the blocking unconstitutional (see B1 and B3).
  • More independent media platforms were blocked through government-issued requests: most recently dokuz8HABER and Oda TV’s news website were blocked in June and March 2020, respectively (see B1).
  • President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan imposed tight restrictions on social media platforms in a new law that requires social media companies to have a representative in country to respond to content removal requests. The law also includes data localization measures (see B3 and C6).
  • Hundreds of social media users were arrested or questions for posting ostensibly false information about the COVID-19 pandemic (see C3).
  • Citizen journalists and opposition members continued to be sentenced to prison for content they posted online (see C3).

A Obstacles to Access

Two earthquakes damaged telecommunications infrastructure during the reporting period and there was one short-term disruption to social media platforms and messaging apps during Turkish military attacks on northern Syria in February 2020. Internet penetration rates continued to grow, and speeds increased. However, the country’s internet backbone remained highly centralized and the cost of internet access continued to be relatively high.

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 4.004 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 5 to 4 due to internet connectivity on both mobile and fixed lines caused by two different earthquakes during the coverage period.

Infrastructural limitations do not directly restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the percentage of individuals using the internet stood at 75.3 percent in 2019, compared to 65 percent in 2017.1 According to the results of the Turkish Statistical Institute’s Household Usage of Information Technologies Survey, the share of households with internet access had risen to 88.3 percent in 2019.2 Turkey has one of the most concentrated mobile markets in Europe.3 There were 76.6 million broadband subscribers as of the last quarter of 2019.4 Mobile internet subscribers had increased to 61.6 million by December 2019—a 2 percent increase from 2018;5 regular mobile penetration reached 97.2 percent of the population, including machine-to-machine (M2M) communication.

Turkey experienced two earthquakes during the reporting period which damaged telecommunications infrastructure and caused disruptions of internet services. On September 26, 2019, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in Istanbul caused disruptions to telecommunications services for up to 27 hours. The service provider Türk Telekom reported outages that lasted for two days. In early January 2020, the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) fined companies almost 20 million liras ($3.48 million) for failure to meet customers’ needs and demands under necessary conditions, and began taking precautions to make sure services are sustained in the event of future earthquakes.6 On January 24, 2020, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake in Elazığ also caused disruptions to cellular and fixed-line communications services for up to three hours.7

Internet service provider (ISP) National Academic Network, which serves many universities across Turkey, experienced technical difficulties that led to connectivity problems for several hours on November 12, 2019.8 Following the connectivity problems, neither service providers nor the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK), which is the hub of all university connections, made a statement regarding the specifics or the cause of the issue.

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 2.002 3.003

Internet pricing in Turkey remains high despite low income rates. According to the 2020 Inclusive Internet Index report, market concentration in broadband services has led to high broadband costs. Turkey remains the country with the lowest score in affordability in Europe, ranking 61st globally.1 Frequent power shortages continued to be experienced country-wide, though not as severely as the previous reporting period. In past years, connectivity in the southeastern region was negatively affected by poor telecommunications infrastructure and electricity blackouts. According to the 2020 Inclusive Internet Index Report, 13 percent more men than women access the internet, which shows a 2 percent improvement from the previous year. However, there is no apparent gender gap in mobile phone access.2

After reporting their first COVID-19 case in March 2020, schools and universities across Turkey were closed temporarily and university students were told that they will be completing their courses online. However, many students do not have access to high-speed internet connections and have been unable to participate in online classes. The Higher Education Council advised university students who do not have access to computers or high-speed internet to freeze their education and continue next year.3

A3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 3.003 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to restrictions on social media during a Turkish airstrike in northern Syria in February 2020.

Restrictions on connectivity, while infrequent, continued during the coverage period. Social media users reported issues in February 2020, when Turkish troops conducted an air strike in northern Syria.1 The connectivity issues lasted around 16 hours and were the result of the intermittent blocking of social media platforms and messaging applications. Telecommunications operators restricted access to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram completely, while partially blocking access to WhatsApp and YouTube. The companies made no statements regarding the blocks. Similar restrictions had also been experienced in previous years during Turkey's military operations in the north of Syria.2 There was no official statement from the government, though, according to NetBlocks, “it is understood that the measures are related to the troop deployment in Syria” and news sources cited “online disinformation” as the basis for the restrictions.3Unlike past years, in 2019 and 2020 internet access was not restricted when elected pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-mayors were dismissed from their seats and replaced by appointed trustees in 45 municipalities of the 65 that HDP had won. Past disruptions targeted the restive southeastern region, where ethnic Kurds comprise a majority of the population and Turkish security forces and military have actively fought the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).4 In September 2016, landline, mobile phone, and internet services were shut down in 10 cities for six hours—affecting some 12 million residents—concomitant with the removal of 28 Kurdish mayors from their posts.5 In October 2016, the government suspended mobile and fixed-line internet service in 11 cities for several days, leaving six million citizens offline and disabling key public services, such as banks and payment mechanisms. The October shutdown coincided with mass protests against the detention of local Kurdish politicians, including the two co-mayors of Diyarbakır. The shutdown apparently intended to delay or inhibit coverage of the police response: reporters needed to travel to nearby cities in order to upload and share footage of police beating protesters.6

There are at least four internet exchange points (IXPs) owned by private companies. Turkey’s internet backbone is run by TTNET, a subsidiary of Türk Telekom—the largest ISP in the country. Türk Telekom, which is partly state owned,7 owns 294,000 kilometers out of 371,000 kilometers of Turkey’s total fiber-optic infrastructure.8

A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 3.003 6.006

A number of regulatory and economic obstacles limit the diversity of service providers. Though all legal entities are allowed to operate an ISP, there are some requirements to apply for authorization, pertaining to issues such as the company’s legal status, scope of activity, and shareholders’ qualifications. Informal obstacles may also prevent newly founded companies without political ties or economic clout from entering the market. ISPs are required by law to submit an application for an activity certificate to the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) before they can offer services. Internet cafés are subject to regulation as well. Those operating without an activity certificate from a local municipality may face fines of 3,000 to 15,000 Turkish liras ($520 to $2,6017). Mobile service providers are subject to licensing through the BTK. Moreover, the BTK has the authority to request written notifications from ISPs. In 2016, for instance, the BTK asked all ISPs to submit weekly progress reports on the status of new restrictions on virtual private networks (VPNs).1

At the beginning of 2019, there were 404,958 domain names with .tr extension2 and in December 2019, the management of the .tr domain name had been taken from Middle East Technical University and handed over to the government-managed Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) (see A5).3

There were 460 operators providing information and communications technology (ICT) services in the Turkish market in the third quarter of 2019.4 TTNET, founded in 2006 by Türk Telekom, is the dominant player, with a market share of 51.3 percent of digital subscriber line subscriptions in the third quarter of 2019, a slight decline from the previous year.5 In recent years, regulators have sought to shut down inactive ISPs that don’t provide any business but rather exist in name only.

Turkcell is still the leading mobile service provider despite a slight decline from the previous year, with 41.5 percent share of the market, followed by the British multinational company Vodafone and TT Mobil.6 An auction of 4G frequency bands was held in 2015, and by 2016, Turkcell and Vodafone, along with Avea, which is now known as TT Mobil, had started offering “4.5G” technology to mobile subscribers.7 On February 10, 2020, President Erdoğan declared that Turkey would not start using fifth-generation (5G) technology until a “national and authentic 5G technology” was developed.8

Türk Telekom was created as a state-owned landline company in 1994 and launched broadband services in the early 2000s through its subsidiary, TTNET. After its privatization in 2005, the company remained close to the government, and the brother of former minister of family and social affairs Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, Dr. Ömer Fatih Sayan, was appointed as CEO of Türk Telekom in December 2018. He was also appointed as deputy Minister of Transport and Infrastructure and is responsible for auditing Türk Telekom and other communications companies.9

A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 1.001 4.004

The independence of the regulatory bodies that oversee service providers is sometimes compromised. Policymaking, regulation, and operations are separated under the basic laws of the telecommunications sector. The Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure is responsible for policy making, while the BTK oversees regulation.1

Even though the BTK has its own dedicated budget, its board members are appointed by the government and its decision-making process is not transparent. Moreover, the BTK chairperson between 2015 and 2018 was the brother of a former minister, and later got appointed as deputy minister of transport and infrastructure. As chairperson he was responsible for developments in the area of communications and digitalization while at the same time serving as CEO of Türk Telekom.2

Despite these potential conflicts of interest, there have been no reported instances of certificates or licenses being improperly denied. After the 2016 coup attempt, the Directorate of Telecommunication and Communication (TİB), which implemented the country’s website blocking law, was shut down under an emergency decree, and all of its responsibilities were transferred to the BTK.3 The TİB—described by President Erdoğan as “among the places that has all the dirt”—was closed due to suspicions that it was used by Gülen movement as a “headquarters for illegal wiretapping.” (Authorities have declared the movement, led by self-exiled Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, a terrorist organization and have blamed it for the 2016 coup attempt.)4

The Computer Center of the Middle East Technical University (METU) has been responsible for managing domain names since 1991. The BTK oversees and establishes the domain-name operation policy and its bylaws. The METU had to sign protocols with the BTK and hand over authority to assign .tr domain names following a court case BTK won in May 2019. This protocol was approved by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). Following the court case and after the decision taken in 2008 to authorize the governmental body to manage domain names, the transition was completed in December 2019.5

Regulations from 2012 name the .tr domain extensions a shared property of the Republic of Turkey. Individuals in Turkey are not permitted to register and own domain names ending with the country extension .tr—such as .com.tr and .org.tr—unless they own a trademark, company, or civil society organization with the same name as the requested domain. Citizens are permitted to file applications to register a domain name ending with .tr so long as their application does not contain any words that go against “general morality,” cultural values and conventions, or any kind of insulting statements.6

B Limits on Content

Self-censorship has persisted. While users have turned to social media for news and information in recent years, websites continued to be blocked, including news articles. However, after two years, Wikipedia was unblocked following a court order that deemed the blocking unconstitutional. Journalists, scholars, and public figures who are critical of the government have faced coordinated harassment by progovernment trolls on Twitter. Regulations that came into force during the coverage period require certain online content providers to obtain licenses.

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 1.001 6.006

Blocking of online content, particularly news and citizen journalism portals, has increased in recent years.

The Free Expression Association, a civil society initiative that lists blocked websites in Turkey, found that more than 288,310 websites were inaccessible as of December 2019, up from about 40,000 in 2013.1 The majority of the newly blocked websites and social media accounts are either related to the Kurdish movement or news outlets critical of the government.2 The BTK was responsible for over 95 percent of the websites blocked.3 Websites can be blocked for “obscenity,” which in the past has included any site with certain keywords relating to sex or sexuality in the domain name. Sites can also be blocked if they are deemed defamatory to Islam, including content that promotes atheism (see B2).4

ISPs offer “child” and “family” filtering options under rules established by the BTK in 2011, though the filtering criteria have been criticized as arbitrary and discriminatory.5 The child filter obstructs access to Facebook, YouTube, Yasam Radyo (Life Radio), the Armenian minority newspaper Agos, and several websites advocating the theory of evolution.6 Internet access is filtered at primary education institutions and public bodies, resulting in the blocking of a number of news sites.7

Online independent media platforms continued to grapple with government-initiated blockages, while a number of other government-linked companies successfully appealed to authorities to block dozens of articles during the reporting period. Other news sites blocked are Ahval News (blocked in early 2018) and Haberdar (blocked in 2016), which remained inaccessible during the coverage period. A news site operated by prominent journalist Can Dündar, Özgürüz, was blocked in 2017, before it published its first article. The independent media site dokuz8HABER was also blocked after the reporting period.

On March 5, 2020, the news website for Oda TV was blocked by a Turkish court after publishing articles on Turkish military involvement in Libya and the death of a Turkish intelligence officer.8 Two journalists and the chief editor of Oda TV were later imprisoned (see C3).

After a two-year ban, Wikipedia was unblocked in Turkey in January 2020 after a court ruled the blocking unconstitutional.9 Wikipedia had been blocked in 2017 after refusing to remove two articles that claimed that the Turkish government was involved in Syria through arms transfers to illegitimate fighting groups. Additionally, the image-sharing site Imgur has been blocked since 2015. In 2016, the BTK ordered ISPs to ban more than 10 VPN services, as well as the circumvention tool TOR.

News articles from August 2019 regarding a public land assignment to Medipol University were blocked in the media by a court order. Additionally, the news articles about the blocking of the original news article were also blocked on 168 links.10

Responding to a letter from the Gendarmerie General Command in July 2019, a court in Ankara blocked 136 website URLs, including the independent news site bianet.org. An opposition member of parliament's personal social media account was also blocked in the court ruling.11

In October 2018, authorities blocked 10 articles at the request of the construction company Limak. The articles alleged the company’s involvement in embezzlement during the construction of an Istanbul airport.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 0.000 4.004

In addition to widespread filtering, state authorities are proactive in requesting the deletion or removal of content. Social media platforms comply with administrative decisions and court orders promptly in order to avoid blocking and, more recently, throttling. Similar to global social media platforms, popular Turkish websites are subject to content removal orders. Online news outlets have also removed content that was blocked.1 The Gülen-linked newspapers Zaman and Today’s Zaman, as well as the Cihan News Agency, were seized by the government in 2017. The online archives of each paper were deleted, as was Zaman’s previous Twitter activity.2 Zaman was one of approximately 130 news outlets that were shut down in July 2016, after the government arrested 89 media workers for alleged ties to the Gülen movement.3 Critical news outlets İleri and dokuz8NEWS lost access to their Twitter accounts two days before the June 23rd repeat Istanbul elections as a result of complaints based on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and takedown requests from progovernment trolls (see B5).4 In a similar fashion, critical online broadcasters Babıali TV and KHK TV were blocked on YouTube after receiving numerous complaints from government authorities and Islamist preachers. Babıali TV received a 90 day live-broadcast ban on YouTube for airing Ebubekir Sifil’s speech on January 10, 2020.5

The English language account of dokuz8NEWS was again taken down temporarily on April 22, 2020. The temporary takedown was brought about by a DMCA request concerning a news piece that was published in 2019 regarding the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs successful requests to block the websites of the self-proclaimed “messiah” İskender Evrenesoğlu.6

Twitter’s 2019 Transparency Report revealed that in the first half of the year, the Turkish government made 350 information requests on 596 accounts as well as 6,073 removal requests on 8,993 accounts with a 5 percent compliance rate. Turkey had the highest number of legal demands for removals.7 Facebook’s 2019 Transparency Report also reveals that the government made 2,060 legal requests and 2,537 user information requests; Facebook was compliant with 73 percent of requests.8

Facebook and Instagram also received a large number of content restriction requests from the Turkish people and government. According to Facebook’s 2019 Transparency Report, 599 pieces of content were restricted by Facebook, 251 at the request of the government, and 348 in response to privately lodged accusations of defamation. Some analysts believe the declining number of requests can be attributed to the government’s shift to blocking content through technical means.

According to the 2019 Restricted Web report, there are 408,494 websites that were blocked in Turkey at the end of 2019 -61,049 of which were blocked within the past year (see B1). Of these restrictions, 2,000 websites belonged to news sites while 650 separate news articles were also blocked, as well as 3,000 Twitter accounts, 600 Facebook posts and 1,600 YouTube videos since 2015.9 Throughout 2019, the Internet Regulations Law was used to block access to 5,599 news articles and 3,528 were later removed by the publishing news portals.10

In July 2020, after the reporting period, the presidency passed a social media law that would further tighten the ruling party’s grip on content moderation online. Specifically, the law, which is said to go into effect on October 1, 2020, will require social media companies to have a representative in-country and will have to respond to requests to block or remove content from their platforms within 48 hours. Noncompliance with the law will be punishable with steep fines (see C6).11

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 1.001 4.004

Many of the restrictions on the internet and digital content lack proportionality and transparency. The blocking and removal of online content (see also B1 and B2) is regulated under Law No. 5651.1 The law was initially enacted in 2007 to protect children and prevent access to illegal and harmful content, including child sexual abuse, drug use, the provision of dangerous substances, prostitution, obscenity, gambling, suicide promotion, and crimes against Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.2 The responsibilities of content providers, hosting companies, public access providers, and ISPs are delineated in this law. Domestically hosted websites with proscribed content can be taken down, while websites based abroad can be blocked and filtered through ISPs. The law has been amended in recent years to broaden the circumstances in which censorship is legally permissible.3

ISPs must join an association for access providers in order to obtain an “activity certificate” to legally operate in the country. ISPs must also comply with blocking orders from the BTK within four hours or face a fine of up to 300,000 Turkish liras ($52,150). Failure to take measures to block all alternative means of accessing the targeted site, such as proxy sites, may result in a fine of up to 50,000 Turkish liras ($8,690).4 In a new law passed after the reporting period, social media companies with over one million daily users will also be forced to comply with blocking orders from the government or individuals within 48 hours or they will face steep fines up to $700,000 (see B2).5The vast majority of blocking orders are issued by the BTK,6 rather than by the courts.7 The procedures surrounding blocking decisions are opaque, creating significant challenges for those seeking to appeal. Judges can issue blocking orders during preliminary investigations as well as during trials. The reasoning behind court decisions is not provided in blocking notices, and the relevant rulings are not easily accessible. As a result, site owners find it difficult to determine why their site was blocked and which court issued the order. The BTK’s mandate includes executing judicial blocking orders, but it can also issue administrative orders for foreign websites, content involving sexual abuse of children, and obscenity. Moreover, in some cases it successfully asks content and hosting providers to remove offending items from their servers, in order to avoid issuing a blocking order that would impact an entire website. This occurs despite the fact that intermediaries are not responsible for third-party content on their sites.

A bylaw approved during the coverage period allows the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) to regulate content, including streaming services (see B6).8Appeals to content restriction decisions are rarely effective. In May 2019 the Wikimedia Foundation successfully petitioned the European Court of Human Rights against the blocking of Wikipedia in Turkey,9 though Turkey did not immediately allow access to the site. Wikipedia was unblocked in Turkey in January 2020. In 2017, Twitter noted they have filed legal objections whenever possible “in response to all court orders involving journalists and news outlets” though none were successful (see B2).10

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 1.001 4.004

Digital media outlets are inhibited by heightened self-censorship. A steep rise in prosecutions for defaming the president has also had a chilling effect on social media users in recent years (see C3). Self-censorship online has been exacerbated by decrees passed under the state of emergency in place since 2016 that have expanded surveillance.1

Susma 24, which monitors and reports on censorship in the media, publications, social media, cinema, theatre, music, and the arts, reported in its annual Censorship and Self-Censorship report that state actions have caused a greater level of self-censorship in society. The Turkish government’s prosecution of journalists, blocking of news articles, heavy financial penalties for publishers, violent treatment of journalists, house-raids, and detentions and arrests of journalists have played a significant role to that effect (see C3 and C7).2 Furthermore, users are required to agree on community standards when signing up for digital social media services. Many companies’ community standards ask users to omit posting certain types of content on their accounts.

The Ministry of Interior announced that between 2013 and 2018 there were 20,474 judicial cases due to citizens' social media activities.3 The Ministry4 also revealed reports on social media arrests (see C3) that created waves of self-censorship among users. Susma 24’s 2019 Censorship Report recorded many cases of imprisonment of journalists, fines against media platforms, investigations opened against social media users, and other censorship mechanisms, which are all increasing self-censorship among users, journalists, and content creators.5 During the reporting period many commentators, journalists, bloggers, and academics announced that they abstain from commenting publicly and publishing opinions, and they even obsess about the content of their open talks and lectures.6

Turkey’s Director of Communications of the Presidency published “Social Media Guidelines” for which the director, Dr. Fahrettin Altun, reminded citizens in May 2020, that they should think twice before liking or sharing a post, as they would be held accountable if the post is perceived as criminal (see B5).7

B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 1.001 4.004

Government manipulation of social media content has adversely impacted the online information landscape.

The government-controlled Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) has been authorized to supervise broadcasts online; platforms are required to pay an annual fee of approximately 100,000 Turkish liras ($17,380) as well as 0.5 percent of their annual sales revenues if they wish to broadcast online. This excludes platforms that publish news, movies, or series online, and lessens the potential for any emerging small newsroom initiatives and citizen journalism platforms.1 As the media atmosphere in Turkey has curtailed independent voices in recent years,2 the majority of previously conventional media journalists have migrated to digital platforms like Netflix, and initiated new media channels. Although so far these new media platforms have not yet been the target of RTÜK intervention, Netflix was ordered to block access to an episode of Designated Survivor series from Turkey. The episode had caused strained diplomatic relations between the US and Turkey when it was first aired in 2017.3

Numerous reports have revealed that an “army of trolls”4—numbering around 6,000 individuals—has been enlisted by the ruling AKP to manipulate online discussions, drive particular agendas, and combat government critics on social media.5 Emails leaked in 2016 provided insight into a coordinated campaign by President Erdoğan’s inner circle to counter critical narratives and weaken protest movements on social media.6 Messages sent to then minister of energy and natural resources Berat Albayrak, who is also the son-in-law of the president, discussed the establishment of “a team of professional graphic designers, coders, and former army officials who received training in psychological warfare,” according to a report by the Daily Dot. One email proposed exposing the drug habits of celebrities who had supported the 2013 Occupy Gezi movement, which resulted in police raids on the homes of 55 actors, directors, and other celebrities two months later. The images of the celebrities during the raids were widely shared by progovernment outlets on social media.

Following years of operations by the “army of trolls,” online targeting networks to challenge the troll army have emerged in the past year. The “Anonymous Movement” is attributed to Taylan Kulaçoğlu, who was detained after being accused of initiating the network.7 The network declares its objective as creating social media campaigns with thousands of volunteers to demand the release of political prisoners and journalists, promote rights and liberties, and target accounts that belong to government sponsored troll networks in order to flag and close them. Other reactionary networks were formed to oppose the Anonymous Movement. One of those networks is “Operation Ebabil,” which targets political opposition figures, critical statements about the government, the profiles of LGBT+ people, the women’s equality movement, and journalists. The networks thousands of members and volunteers organize on messaging channels such as Telegram and Facebook groups to target, harass, and flag social media accounts to initiate content-reporting. The Operation Ebabil network was formed on May 10, 2020 and declared its mission statement on its Telegram channel as “to fight against those who share antinational content on social media, those who share manipulative or wrong information, those who promote terrorism, those who make calls for protests [and] uprising, those who defy national values.”8 The Operation Ebabil had announced on its Telegram channel on May 20, 2020 that they managed to restrict the main opposition party’s chair Canan Kaftancıoğlu's Twitter account through targeted reporting by thousands of the network’s members.9 The AKP's deputy chairperson who is responsible for publicity and media relations, Mahir Ünal, called for marking social media users with “ethical use” and “national user” designations by adding a green dot and Turkish flag next to their usernames.10 This statement came after President Erdoğan called social media “completely out of control” on January 30, 2020. On February 10 Erdoğan referred to social media as “a complete dump.” Technologist Onur Mat analyzed 10,000 profiles that would fall into the ethical user and national user categories and found that the majority of those users were linked to the governing alliance. Mat noted that, while there is nothing wrong with calls for ethical use of social media, these designations bear the potential of turning into a mechanism to pressure and suppress free expression and diversity.11 After the launch of the green dot initiative, users engaged in targeted harassment and threatening of women journalists, artists, and politicians (see C7).12

According to a study published in December 2018 by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Foundation and the Turkish Social Economic Political Research Foundation (TÜSES), young people’s use of social media shows that “supporters of the AKP are more effective than those of other parties in disseminating political messaging.” The online efforts of AKP activists are extensive and systematic, and are coordinated with the party’s media wing on social media strategy. Online supporters also had “financial support and access to expert advice during election periods.”13

Journalists, scholars, and civil society leaders who are critical of the government have faced orchestrated harassment on Twitter, often by dozens or even hundreds of users working to discredit them (see C7).14 For example, in May 2019, ahead of Istanbul’s second mayoral election, which was held after the first results were annulled, numerous progovernment social media accounts spread a misleading video of opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu. The video was altered to show İmamoğlu saying he would have terrorist groups run the country.15 Shortly before the November 2015 elections, progovernment trolls circulated allegations that Oy ve Ötesi (Vote and Beyond), the first civic election-monitoring initiative in Turkey, was committing fraud and aiding terrorist organizations.16

False news is a problem in Turkey, as well. According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report 2018, 49 percent of Turks were “exposed to completely made-up news,” on a weekly basis. The report found that the country’s media was the most saturated with fake news globally.17 According to the 2019 Digital News Report, while public trust in news overall improved to 46 percent, there was less trust in progovernment news sources.18

Media coverage regarding the Kurdish-populated southeastern region is heavily influenced by the government. In 2016, new progovernment editorial administrative boards for Gülen-affiliated news outlets were established by court order (see B2) as announced by former Zaman editor Edip Yılmaz at the 10th Istanbul Gathering for Freedom of Expression in April 2016.19

Aside from legal discouragement of online activities, Turkey’s chief anti-addiction association, Green Crescent, and the Directorate of Religious Affairs led campaigns against digital addiction during the reporting period. The campaigns attempted to target “immoral” uses of social media and the addictive practices of technological devices. The Directorate of Religious Affairs issued a Friday sermon to be read out in over 130.000 mosques across Turkey20 as well as starting social media campaigns advising people to reclaim family values instead of social media popularity.21

In June 2020, the General Directorate of Security (GDS) in Ankara announced that numerous social media channels were being shut down. Relevant ministries, chief public prosecutors, and the General Directorate of Security jointly claimed they were taking down content that might have a negative impact on the children, general morality, family and social order.22 In the statement, the directorate general also stated that “cyber patrol” activities would continue to target content that might have an impact on children and youth.

B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 1.001 3.003

Some economic constraints can negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online.

Advertising is frequently used as a tool to control the media. The government financially supports AKP-friendly media outlets, including online outlets, through advertising, and withholds such support from critical publications, leaving independent online media at a disadvantage.1 Net neutrality is not explicitly protected by Turkish laws.

In March 2018, the parliament approved a bill granting the RTÜK authority to regulate online content, including but not limited to commercial streaming services such as Netflix, as well as foreign-based online media platforms such as Arti TV and Deutsche Welle (DW), both of which are based in Germany.2 The RTÜK prepared draft bylaws in September 2018 that came into force in August 2019.3 Under the new rules, the RTÜK issues licenses to online content providers for a fee of 100,000 Turkish liras ($17,380), and is be able to fine providers or revoke their licenses.4 Analysts fear that this new regulatory framework will further threaten the ability to publish online.

After a two-year strained relationship between the Turkish Board of Competition and Google International LLC, in February 2020 the company was fined 98,354,000 Turkish liras ($17,095,700) for abusing its dominant position in the digital search market in Turkey.5 During the process of the investigation, Google Inc. had warned that should they be sanctioned financially by the Turkish authorities, they would stop supplying digital support for smartphones that rely on Android IOS in Turkey, which comprise 90 percent of all smartphones sold in Turkey.6

Following its publication on the Official Gazette in December 2019, the Digital Services Tax number 7194 came into force in March 2020, requiring gaming, music platforms, video platforms, apps, social media platforms' paid services, and web platforms that allow sale of products or services to pay 7.5 percent taxes on their sales. The banking sector, insurance, and pension sales were given an exception. A clause in the amendment allows the president to lower the rate to 1 percent or double it to 15 percent upon necessity.7 In the first month of the tax’s application the government gained 67.6 million Turkish liras ($9.02 million).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of online video platforms increased, which rose revenue for publishers of online content. Revenues Management Directorate experts İhsan Durlanık and Naci Yıldırım announced that all content producers who earn revenues from sponsorships and platform advertisements for their online publications are subject to a 15 percent income tax, even if they make minimal earnings or if they are underage.8

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 2.002 4.004

Shutdowns of independent outlets, the preponderance of progovernment media, and self-censorship have negatively affected the diversity of online content. Turkish users rely on online publications for news, despite the country’s restrictive legal environment and self-censorship. There are a wide range of blogs and websites through which citizens question and criticize the Turkish political arena and its leaders. While in the last few years many platforms have been subjected to shutdown orders or access-blocking, many others that rely on the social media–first principle have expanded their reach in society. In the past decade, platforms such as dokuz8NEWS, 140 Journos, Medyascope have been filling this gap through new media practices, publishing on social media channels and closed-circuit groups on messaging applications. The 2016 blocking of Tor and popular VPN services made it more difficult for users to reach blocked websites1 (see B1). However, the built-in VPN service by the Opera web browser allows many users with low digital literacy to access information.

As of mid-2019, the progovernment En Son Haber was the most visited news site in the country, followed by the websites of the newspapers Hurriyet and Aksam—also progovernment outlets—and the website of the opposition newspaper Sozcu. Platforms for citizen journalism and volunteer reporting have gained traction in recent years, including 140journos, dokuz8NEWS, and Ötekilerin Postası. Fact-checking initiatives (see B8) also act as information sources. Censorship of prominent local news sites, as well as government influence in coverage, make information-gathering even more difficult in the Kurdish-majority southeastern region.

Social media platforms also provide an important source of independent news. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report 2019 found that people are increasingly consuming news via YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook Messenger, though slightly fewer people get their news through Facebook and Twitter than in years prior. According to the report, social media is “an important outlet for alternative and critical perspectives.”2

According to the 2020 Digital News Report, Turkey tops the list of countries where internet users follow the news through videos online, with 95 percent of respondents watching news videos weekly. However, there is a slowly growing trend of not following the news on any platform.3 The government controls over 95 percent of large-scale Turkish media outlets. Thus, the opposition party has been forced to find new ways to inform the public. YouTube has become increasingly popular as a source for news, specifically through the channels of journalists such as Emin Çapa and DW Türkçe. The BBC, DW, France 24, and Voice of America (VoA) have all launched YouTube channels in Turkish, expanding access to independent sources of information.4

Progovernment media fear retaliation from political authorities for their coverage of the opposition. For example, during a live coverage of the post-earthquake response in Elazığ, a local resident being interviewed had the microphone taken from him after thanking mayor of Istanbul Ekrem İmamoğlu, a member of the opposition.5

B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 4.004 6.006

Digital activism has played a significant role in the country since the 2013 Occupy Gezi protests, although it has waned in recent years as a result of the repressive climate instilled after the 2016 coup attempt and the growing proclivity of people to self-censor. While membership to civil society organizations had experienced a steady increase between 2007 and 2017, the numbers have shown a steep fall since, due to closure of rights-focused nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). However, recent training sessions on new media practices for civil society organizations by various institutions such as the Media Research Association, Bianet, the Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS), and Kadir Has University have enabled civil society organizations and activists to continue to engage with digital activism.1A number of websites and apps are used to organize people both online and offline. Turkey Blocks, an organization that tracks censorship in real time, was granted the Index on Censorship’s 2017 award for digital activism.2 The organization Vote and Beyond monitored the June 2018 elections through a mobile app that enables volunteers to report voting data, which is then compared with preliminary results announced by the Supreme Electoral Council.3 The Election Justice Platform—which had been formed by various opposition parties, unions, and media organizations—has served as a basis for citizens’ monitoring of election safety through the creation of networks, alerting users of any fraud attempts or irregularities.4 Share of Truth is a political fact-checking website, and a popular source for information.5 Teyit is another fact-checking initiative that focuses on verifying news reports and debunking disinformation and urban legends.

Social media is used as a platform to advocate for justice and has been utilized to bring attention to criminal cases that may be ignored in the mainstream media. In 2018, the death of an 11-year-old girl, Rabia Naz Vatan, in Giresun, led to a campaign on Twitter that brought renewed attention to the case and ultimately led to the investigation being reopened. Authorities initially ruled the death a suicide but her family claimed was a hit-and-run accident perpetrated by an individual with connections to the local government.6

The journalist who led the Twitter campaign to reopen the Vatan case, Metin Cihan, was later subjected to a smear-campaign on progovernment media and an investigation that accused him of supporting a coup plot. He had to flee Turkey (see C7).

After the reporting period, Turkish women began the #ChallengeAccepted online campaign that went viral globally. The campaign sought to bring attention to femicide and gender-based violence in Turkey.7 Women are often the targets of harassment both online and offline in Turkey.

C Violations of User Rights

Turkish citizens faced investigations and arrests for their online activities, with a large number of users being arrested for posting ostensibly false information about the COVID-19 pandemic online. Social media users were also targeted for criticizing the president. After the reporting period, president Erdoğan approved a new social media law that will further strengthen the regime’s ability to censor online content. Surveillance remained a concern.

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 1.001 6.006

The constitution and laws of Turkey fail to protect free expression and press freedom online despite including broad protections for freedom of expression theoretically. Article 26 states that “everyone has the right to express and disseminate their thoughts and opinion by speech, in writing, or in pictures, or through other media, individually or collectively.”1 Turkish legislation and court judgments are subject to the European Convention on Human Rights and bound by the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. Despite these guarantees, online journalists and ordinary users frequently face civil and criminal penalties for legitimate expression. The constitution also guarantees the right to privacy, though there are legal limitations on the use of encryption devices (see C4), and surveillance of online activity by security agencies is believed to be widespread (see C5).2

The state of emergency enacted in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt and in effect until July 2018 allowed President Erdoğan to issue decrees without judicial oversight, including decrees that threatened freedom of expression online, which were used to block websites, shut down communication networks, and close civil society organizations and news outlets.3 Decree No. 671, published in 2016, amended the Law on Digital Communications to authorize the government to take “any necessary measure” on the grounds of “national security, public order, prevention of crime, protection of public health and public morals, or protection of the rights and freedoms” guaranteed under Article 22 of the constitution. The decree also obliges telecommunications providers to enforce government orders within two hours of receiving them.4 Despite the fact that the state of the emergency is no longer in effect, the decree remains in force.5

Turkish laws are enforced by a judiciary whose independence has been compromised, particularly since the coup attempt of 2016.6 Judges still occasionally rule against the government, but the appointment of thousands of new, loyalist judges in recent years, the potential professional costs of ruling against the executive in a major case, and the effects of an ongoing purge of judges suspected of supporting the coup attempt have all severely weakened judicial independence in Turkey.

Seen as a win for freedom of expression activists, nine people who were involved in the 2013 Occupy Gezi protests were acquitted by a Turkish court in February 2020 (see C3).7 The verdict was a surprise to many people who see Turkey’s courts as lacking independence.8

The Occupy Gezi trial, which has been going on for three years, began with the arrest of a philanthropic businessperson, Osman Kavala, and was concluded in February 2020 with acquittal of all suspects in Turkey. The judges that gave the acquittal verdict are now subject to an investigation themselves for “allowing legal maneuvering to acquit Osman Kavala from prison.” The Gezi Park protests of 2013 included demands for civil rights and liberties, and the trial has been seen as a political process, further jeopardizing the right to assembly and free expression.9 Kavala was re-arrested before being released from prison with charges of collaborating with coup plotters in 2016, even though he had previously been cleared of charges of the same accusation (see C3).10

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 1.001 4.004

There are no laws that specifically criminalize online activities like posting one’s opinions, downloading information, sending emails, or transmitting text messages. Instead, many provisions of the criminal code and other laws, such as the Anti-Terrorism Law, are applied to both online and offline activity.

According to Article 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Law, “Those who make propaganda of a terrorist organization by legitimizing, glorifying, or inciting violent methods or threats” can face prison terms of one to five years. The law has been widely criticized for its broad definition of terrorism, which has been exploited by courts to prosecute journalists and academics who criticize the government, with no clear links to terrorist activities.1

Defamation is a criminal offense punishable by a fine and up to two years in prison. Charges have frequently been used to prosecute government critics. Defaming a public official carries a minimum sentence of one year in prison, while insulting the president is punishable by between one and four years in prison, according to Article 299 of the criminal code. Several courts deemed Article 299 unconstitutional in the first half of 2016, but the Constitutional Court upheld the provision in December 2016.2 Since 2015, there have been approximately 100,000 complaints filed against people accused of defaming the president. Of the 17,541 cases that went to trial, only 2,676 were acquitted.3 While thousands of people go on trial for insults to the president, one specific case resulted in demotion of the sentence. An Ankara court ruled in favor of a citizen who shared a post about President Erdoğan. The individual had been taken to court with the accusation of defaming the president, but the court ruled that the suspect was targeting Erdoğan as the AKP party leader not as the President in his expression, thus the sentence to be given should only be considered as "insult" instead of "insult to the President."4

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 2.002 6.006

Prosecutions and detentions of Turkish citizens for their online activities continued during the coverage period. Many journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens faced arrest in retaliation for criticism of the war in Syria and other government policies, as well as expressions of Kurdish identity. According to the Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS), a total of 85 journalists are imprisoned in Turkey as of March 2020 (see also C7).1

Journalists, writers, and activists continued to be detained and arrested in Turkey during the reporting period. On November 4, 2019, journalist and novelist Ahmet Altan was released from prison after being convicted of “helping a terrorist group” and spending three years in jail.2 However, he was arrested again a week later, after prosecutors appealed against his release, following a critical article he published in which he wrote “I am waiting for an objection to my release as I type these words.”3 He was awaiting an appeal by the court at the end of the coverage period.

Prosecutions for insulting the president online have increased in recent years. Some of the defendants have been jailed while awaiting trial. Insulting the president online is an offense punishable by up to four years in prison. Yet on March 9, 2020 a court ruled that insult to AKP chair and President Erdoğan does not constitute a crime of insulting the president, as Erdoğan has registered with a political party and lost his impartiality.4 Even though this decision is up for appeal with the Supreme Court, it remains for now. Despite this, arrests and detentions have continued for insulting Erdoğan on social media.5

During the coronavirus pandemic, nearly 100,000 prisoners were released in April due to concern over the potential high spread of the virus in Turkey’s prison system. However, journalists, writers, and activists were not among those released.6 Citizens were also arrested for posting false information regarding the coronavirus online. The Ministry of Interior announced on May 21, 2020 that 510 people were arrested for allegedly “sharing false and provocative news about coronavirus” on social media.7

Dila Koyurga, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) local secretary for the İzmir youth unit was detained on May 27, 2020 for her social media posts insulting Erdoğan, the prime minister at the time of the posts in 2013.8 Although some of the content subject to criminal complaints was from 7 years ago, which nearly exceeds the statute of limitations, Erdoğan’s lawyers filed the complaint to the İzmir Chief Public Prosecutor's Office with the accusation of “insult to (a) public officer” and for more recent content published by a total of 7 people including local CHP representatives that ostensibly insulted the president.9

In May 2019, the main opposition CHP official in Istanbul, Canan Kaftancıoğlu, was indicted for posts on Twitter from between 2012 and 2017 that allegedly insulted the Turkish government, AKP chair and president of Turkey Erdoğan, and other public servants; incited “hatred and enmity;” and spread “propaganda for a terrorist organization.” In June 2020, after the reporting period, Kaftancıoğlu was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison.10

Activists, political oppositions members, and citizens alike are penalized for content posted on their social media accounts. For example, the local chair of Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP) in Rize’s Fındıklı, Tugay Köse, was detained and spent a night at the police precinct due to the party's social media comments regarding the resignation of Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu.11 In November 2019, human rights defender and citizen journalist Nurettin Aldemir was sentenced to 18 months and 22 days in prison for “propagating terrorism” through his social media posts.12 Lawyer Harika Günay Karataş was sentenced to 37 months and 15 days in prison in Hakkari's Yüksekova due to her social media activity that allegedly propagated terrorism. The charges cited all of her social media posts from the last 7 years, as she was an open critic of government policies regarding the dismissal of elected mayors.13 In September 2019, Jinnews correspondent Melike Aydın was sentenced to suspended 15 months in prison for her 2016 social media activity.14

Between October 9 and December 25, 2019, a total of 636 people were subjected to judicial proceedings regarding their social media posts about the government’s Operation Peace Spring in the north of Syria; 86 were arrested, 249 were released with judicial control orders, and 550 were released freely.15 Rudaw TV journalist Rawin Sterk was arrested due to his social media activities after getting detained alongside many other journalists who followed refugees to the Greek border in Edirne.16

Social media influencer Pınar Karagöz, who uses the nickname “Pucca” online, was detained in October 2018 for social media posts that referenced drug trafficking while discussing the popular television show Narcos, which prosecutors claimed encouraged drug use. In July 2019, Pucca was sentenced to five years and ten months in prison for the posts.17 The conviction was subsequently appealed.18

In August 2018, during Turkey’s currency crisis, the Ministry of Interior announced that an investigation had been launched into 346 social media accounts that posted provocative content on the Turkish lira.19 While the results of the investigation are unclear, in June 2019, two Bloomberg journalists who had written about the depreciation of the lira in August 2018 were indicted, as were 36 people who had commented on the article or criticized the economy on social media.20 In solidarity, multiple Turkish financial experts have silenced their social media accounts and stopped giving commentary on the Turkish economy. As a result of this animosity, various Turkish journalists have anonymously stated that they could not schedule guests on their television programs or interview anyone for publication without consulting a more central authority at their news outlet .21

In January 2018, a number of journalists were arrested for online criticism of Operation Olive Branch, a Turkish military operation in Syria’s Afrin.22 The Turkish police force has associated criticism of the operation with terrorism, accusing critiques of spreading PKK propaganda.23 Furthermore, Turkey asked social media sites including Facebook and Twitter to take down posts that criticize Operation Olive Branch (see B2).24 As part of the crackdown, journalists Hayri Demir and Sibel Hürtaş were detained for comments on social media that criticized the Turkish military’s role in Afrin and contradicted the government’s assertions about the conflict.25 They were detained for “inciting the people to violence” and convicted of “terrorist propaganda via the media.”26Although they were released on bail after four days, Demir, Hürtaş and 10 other defendants faced up to 10 years and 6 months in prison for their criticism of the operation on social media.27 Following a number of delays, the next trial date was set for December 2019.28 In May 2018, Demir was handed a separate suspended sentence of 18 months and 22 days for spreading terrorist propaganda online.29

According to the Ministry of the Interior’s yearly report for 2018, over 42,000 social media accounts were investigated for spreading propaganda for terrorist organizations, praising these organizations, publicly declaring that they are involved in terrorist organizations, encouraging hatred and enmity, and insulting government officials, among other offenses. More than 18,000 people faced legal action as a result of these investigations.30 However, it is unclear how many of these cases were legitimate. While on an irregular basis the Ministry of Interior announces legal proceedings targeting hundreds of social media users, later reports appeared to contradict the numbers, making it harder to monitor the situation.

These arrests and others have led to increasing rates of self-censorship online by many users who fear that if they speak out against the government, they too may face prosecution (see B4).31

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 2.002 4.004

Limitations on encryption and anonymity are concerns in Turkey. According to the Inclusive Internet Index, as of June 2020 only 46 percent of people trust that they can maintain their online privacy. However, 50 percent of people trust government websites and applications, while only 10 percent of people trust non-government websites and applications.1

The anonymous purchase of mobile phones is not allowed; buyers must provide official identification. According to a presidential decree issued in May 2019, Turkish citizens may only import one mobile phone every three years.2 Imported devices can be registered at mobile service providers’ subscription centers and an e-government website for a fee of 1,838 Turkish liras ($320). Devices that are not registered within 120 days of purchase are blocked from telecommunications networks, excluding emergency services.

In 2011, the BTK imposed regulations on the use of encryption hardware and software. Suppliers are required to provide encryption keys to state authorities before they can offer their products or services to individuals or companies within Turkey. Failure to comply can result in administrative fines and, in cases related to national security, prison sentences.

During the post-coup state of emergency rule, an online encryption application called “By-Lock” was demonized and used as pretext for long-term pretrial detentions.3 As a result, citizens shy away from using emerging encrypted messaging apps for fear of being accused of engaging in activities that threaten national security.

C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 1.001 6.006

Government surveillance and the bulk retention of user data have violated privacy rights. Under Turkish law, the interception of electronic communications had fallen under the purview of the TİB (now the BTK). Questions remain over the legality of the General Directorate of Security’s practice of using software that can infiltrate targets’ computers.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, the Ministry of Health initiated a “Life Fits in Home” application for mobile devices to inform the population on the latest developments regarding the virus, track risk maps, and issue urgent notifications regarding new measures. This application monitored users’ GPS location, camera, contact list, and Bluetooth to make sure infected people or risk-groups did not violate the quarantine or self-isolation measures. For traveling, an SMS approval requirement was initiated. Six percent of the population— 5 million users—in Turkey downloaded the application despite its highly-centralized data storage and its invasive nature.1 The Alternative Informatics Association warned against use of this state-sponsored application, viewing its potential to transition into a mechanism of digital surveillance as fears of coronavirus rose. The Association called for all gathered data to be deleted after the pandemic is declared cleared from the country.2

The prominence of alleged Gülenists in the police and judiciary had been a major point of discussion in the country in recent years, particularly after Gülenists were widely blamed for leaked wiretaps that led to various government corruption scandals in 2013 and 2014. Further scandals prompted high-level dismissals and reshuffling within the police and judiciary, apparently aimed at removing suspected Gülenist officials.3 The 2016 coup attempt prompted a new wave of surveillance as part of the broader purge of individuals with alleged links to banned groups.4 According to Article 22 of the constitution, “Everyone has the right to freedom of communication, and secrecy of communication is fundamental.” This right can only be limited by a court order in cases affecting “national security, public order, prevention of the commission of crimes, protection of public health and public morals, or protection of the rights and freedoms of others, or unless there exists a written order of an agency authorized by law in cases where delay is prejudicial.”5 For the most part, any action that could interfere with freedom of communication or the right to privacy must be authorized by the judiciary. For example, judicial permission is required for technical surveillance under the Penal Procedural Law, although Turkish security forces allowed to conduct wiretapping for 24 hours without a judge’s permission in urgent situations. However, after the passage of the Homeland Security Act in 2015, this time limit was increased to 48 hours, with a new requirement that officials who conduct wiretapping notify their superiors. In addition, only the Ankara High Criminal Court is authorized to decide whether a wiretapping request is legitimate. Despite constitutional guarantees, most forms of telecommunication continue to be tapped and intercepted.6

Furthermore, the powers of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) to conduct surveillance were expanded under Law No. 6532 on Amending the Law on State Intelligence Services and the National Intelligence Organization. Passed in 2014, this amendment grants intelligence agents unfettered access to communications data without a court order (see C6).

In a clause under Law No. 6532 (see C6) related to the MİT’s ability to intercept and store private data on “external intelligence, national defense, terrorism, international crimes, and cybersecurity passing through telecommunication channels,” no requirement to procure a court order is mentioned.7 The law also limits MİT agents’ accountability for wrongdoing. Courts must obtain the permission of the head of the agency in order to investigate agents, and journalists or editors who publish leaks on MİT activities may be imprisoned for three to nine years, which has facilitated a crackdown on government opponents such as the Gülenists.8In a largely positive development, the Data Protection Law entered into force in 2016, and the Personal Data Protection Authority has been operational since January 2017, aligning the country’s legislation with European Union (EU) standards.9 In April 2019, the Personal Data Protection Authority fined Facebook 1.65 million Turkish liras ($286,800) due to an application programming interface (API) bug that allowed third-party applications to access the photos of users, including from Turkey.10 As of 2019, there have been a total of 3,585 submissions of private data breach reports to the Personal Data Protection Authority, with 167 being violation reports; 2,401 applications were finalized and a total of 14 million liras ($2.43 million) in financial penalties have been ordered since 2017.11

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 0.000 6.006

Law No. 6532 (see C5) forces public and private bodies—including but not limited to banks, archives, private companies, and professional organizations, such as bar associations—to provide the MİT with any requested data, documents, or information regarding certain crimes related to national security, state secrets, and espionage. Failure to comply can be punished with imprisonment.Under Law No. 5651, hosting and access providers must retain all traffic information for one year and maintain the accuracy, integrity, and confidentiality of such data. In addition, access providers must file the data together with a time stamp and provide assistance and support to the TİB (now the BTK) in monitoring internet traffic. In 2015, the Constitutional Court nullified a set of amendments passed in 2014, including a requirement that hosting providers must store data for up to two years.1 Public-use internet providers have different responsibilities for retaining data, depending on whether they hold commercial or noncommercial status. Commercial providers are defined as entities such as internet cafés that provide internet service for a payment. Noncommercial public-use internet providers are defined as entities that provide internet service at a certain venue for a specific period of time, such as hotels and restaurants. While all public-use internet providers are expected to take measures to prevent access to illegal content and store internal IP distribution logs, commercial providers must also receive permission from the local authorities, use a content-filtering service approved by the BTK, and keep accurate daily records of internal IP distribution logs using software supplied by the BTK, which must be stored for a period of one year. In addition, these commercial providers are required to install a video surveillance system to identify users and retain such records for seven days. All data must be made available to the BTK upon request, and a court order is not required. Those who do not comply can face fines between 10,000 ($1,740) and 100,000 Turkish liras ($17,380).2

As part of the relief package prepared during the coronavirus pandemic, the governing AKP proposed 66 legislative items, including a draft bill to obligate digital enterprises and social media companies to open local offices in Turkey and store all data inside the country for data localization purposes. The draft bill also allows private companies to observe and store users' private data, despite previous legislative steps taken for the protection of private data.3 Lawyer Ece Güner-Toprak expressed grave concerns that the draft bill bears the potential for censorship against media platforms in Turkey. According to Güner-Toprak, once Twitter, Facebook and other platforms have local offices in Turkey, as the law would require, they would be obligated to “store user data inside Turkey, and apply all content-removal, access blocking, [and other] measures immediately upon orders.” If they do not comply, they risk losing all user traffic due to narrowing bandwidth.”4 Law professor Dr. Yaman Akdeniz agreed that the proposed legislation is an obvious targeting of social media platforms as it obliges all platforms to openly share user data with the governing authority upon request, and further allow content removal at an upgraded level.5

While the legislative proposal was later updated to remove the articles on social media, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) filed another draft bill to enforce the use of personal identification numbers issued by the state when signing up for digital services, including social media platforms. The MHP claimed that the absence of such a rule allows troll armies and fake profiles to cause victimhood online.6 Deputy of the MHP Halil Öztürk also stated that the proposed bill sought to enforce data localization and prevent the opening of fake profiles to promote terrorist ideologies online, while also safeguarding national data through personal data protection measures.7 Technologist Onur Mat evaluated the data localization attempts that have been brought to public discussion, and believes that, similar to banning YouTube, PayPal or Wikipedia, the restrictions are a detriment to privacy rights and civil society. Especially in the case of individual small enterprises, “access to technical infrastructure and integration into financial and economic entities is a crucial necessity.” The restriction or blocking of social media and other platforms “kills the competition potential of these small enterprises,” which risks curtailing “the country's economic competitiveness.”8

After the reporting period in July 2020, President Erdoğan reintroduced and approved the social media laws originally drafted in April requiring foreign social media companies with more than one million daily visits from users within Turkey to establish a representative in the country. The regulations further tighten the government’s control over freedom of expression online. Companies will be required to remove content within 48 hours of the government making such a request, or face fines up to $700,000. The law also maintained the data localization component that requires social media companies to store user data inside Turkey, raising serious concerns for user privacy (see B2).9

C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 3.003 5.005

Harassment of journalists on social media is a problem in Turkey. Since 2016, the International Press Institute (IPI) has collected records of at least 950 instances of abusive behavior against journalists online and 176 threats of violence.1 A Twitter account (@ustakiloyunlari) with over 100,000 followers has regularly smeared journalists and threatened to release personal information about them. Online speech on Islam or the prophet Muhammad, the Kurdish civil conflict, and even mild criticism of the president, government, or ruling party can result in death threats and legal battles. Citizen journalists and reporters for online news outlets risk assault in retaliation for their reporting.2

During the coverage period, a progovernment think tank called Political Economic and Social Research Foundation (SETAV) published a document reporting the private and personal information of journalists who work for international media organizations operating in Turkey with financial support from the European Union. Civil society groups, journalism circles, opposition parties, bar associations and many other institutions all denounced the report as seriously flawed and unethical.3 In the document, SETAV presented personal information of journalists in a criminalizing manner.4 The Journalists Union of Turkey filed a criminal complaint against SETAV, accusing the think tank of unlawfully profiling and targeting journalists. Many other journalism associations reacted strongly calling for a retraction to the document from publication.5

Intimidation of journalists through physical attacks also limits the plurality of voices in the media. During the previous reporting period, over a dozen journalists were physically assaulted, beaten, and subjected to gun violence for criticizing the governing alliance’s policies and prominent political figures. Despite international condemnations of these attacks, impunity in these cases is common and encourages further aggression towards journalists.6

House raids of journalists are common in Turkey. Critical journalist Nurcan Baysal announced on October 19, 2019, while she was abroad, that her house was raided at 5 am by dozens of anti-terror police due to her social media activity.7

Following an airstrike targeting Turkish soldiers deployed to Syria's Idlib Province in March 2020, three journalists from the Russian news agency Sputnik were attacked by a far-right group.8 The journalists were later detained. A young man who published an insulting video on his social media accounts regarding the death of Turkish soldiers later appeared in another video where he was violently arrested by special-ops forces as thousands of far-right supporters chanted for the young man to be tortured.9

During the Feminist Night March that took place on March 8, 2020, hundreds of thousands of women marched across Turkey. Despite the governorship banning the march in Istanbul,10 it still took place in areas surrounding the original venue. Social media posts were used for a smear campaign by progovernment media and troll armies, who engaged in the targeted harassment of march-goers through insults and online attacks.11

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 1.001 3.003

News sites have frequently come under technical attack at politically sensitive moments or after publishing controversial information. Independent media platforms experienced digital attacks during the reporting period.

In July 2019, the blog and news site of journalist Fehmi Koru was inaccessible for around two days due to a cyberattack. Koru had published a blog post alleging that the head of the MHP, Devlet Bahçeli, had gained more authority by forming an alliance with the AKP. He was later criticized for the post by Bahçeli, who referenced Koru’s ties to Gülenists.1

Journalist Kenan Kırkaya, who was imprisoned and accused of promoting terrorism through his social media activities, stated that his Facebook account was hacked. Posts that are now the subject of the investigation into his activities were not posted by him as he did not have access to his account while in prison.2

Two journalists, Murat Ağırel and Batuhan Çolak, had their mobile phones hacked through a Signaling System 7 (SS7) breach, downgrading their connectivity from 4G to 2G service in February 2020.3 In March 2020, seasoned journalist Ayşenur Arslan's Twitter account was hacked by unidentified attackers.4 The hacking of these journalists’ accounts sparked discussion in technology circles and around GSM (global system for mobile communications) companies, which did not issue any statement regarding network security risk analysis or whether they take precautions against such incidents.5 The journalists whose phones, email, and Twitter accounts were hacked after posting tweets about the Turkish intelligence operatives losing their lives in Libya defined the incidents as “e-assault” and filed criminal complaints.6

The arts and culture news site Sanatatak suffered technical attacks in 2016 after publishing a letter supporting Turkish actress Füsun Demirel, who had declared that she had “wanted to be a [Kurdish] guerrilla” in her youth. The website was inaccessible for about 48 hours due to distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.7 While opposition news sites and Twitter accounts are frequently targeted by progovernment hackers, government ministers have also been affected. The 2016 penetration of the personal email account of Berat Albayrak by RedHack, a Turkish hacking group, yielded more than 57,000 messages from 2000 to 2016, including many that covered state affairs. The material was uploaded to Dropbox, OneDrive, GitHub, and Google Drive. In 2017, the BTK announced that the government would set up an army of “white-hat hackers” to defend Turkey online.8

On Turkey

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  • Global Freedom Score

    32 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    35 100 not free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

    No
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes