Days before Turkey’s crucial 14 May elections, US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) and UK-based ARTICLE 19 noted on Wednesday that the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would exert considerable control over the digital ecosystem in an effort to undermine the outcome of the election, in a report on the government’s handling of internet traffic.
The document examines potential threats to Turkey’s online environment in the parliamentary and presidential elections in which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) face a significant electoral challenge, and outlines how the government has amassed a vast arsenal of digital censorship tools.
“The Turkish government has accelerated its efforts to enforce censorship and tighten control over social media and independent online news sites ahead of this election,” said Deborah Brown, senior technology researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The vote will test whether voters in Turkey can rely on social media for independent news and to express their views on the election and its outcome, despite government efforts to put companies under its heel.”
HRW and ARTICLE 19 have also examined the government’s previous silencing of dissenting opinions online. The groups have called on social media platforms and messaging services to prioritise human rights over profits, resist government pressure and put in place contingency plans against throttling (limiting bandwidth to internet users).
“The Turkish government should end its crackdown on civil society and secure the right to freedom of expression and privacy especially in the run-up to and during elections,” the NGOs said. “And any future Turkish government should reassess its legal framework and ensure it is compliant with its human rights obligations.”
“In recent years, the government has stepped up its prosecutions of journalists, political opponents, and others for criticising the president and the government online or even just for sharing or liking critical articles on social media. It frequently blocks websites and orders the removal of content that voices opposing views, and has a record of blocking access to popular social media networks at times of political unrest or when it anticipates criticism, as it did in the aftermath of the devastating February 2023 earthquakes.”
In October 2022, the disinformation law, which the opposition has dubbed ‘the censorship law’, was adopted by the Turkish parliament with the votes of the ruling AKP and its far-right ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
The most controversial article of the law relates to social media posts and adds the vaguely-defined crime of “publicly disseminating misleading information” to the Turkish Penal Code.
Social media platforms that reject government demands for user data or content removal could face hefty fines and bandwidth restrictions that would leave their platforms effectively unusable in Turkey.