Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became president of Turkey in 2014, and since then, the prosecution rate for “insulting the president” has risen by 4470% and the conviction rate by 5148%. In order to convict over 200 journalists, media workers, and ordinary citizens, the government uses Article 299 of Turkey’s penal code. Article 299 states that “Any person who insults the President of the Republic shall be sentenced to a penalty of imprisonment for a term of one to four years; (Amended on 29/6/2005 – By Article 35 of the Law no. 5377) Where the offence is committed in public, the sentence to be imposed shall be increased by one sixth.” While in Turkey, working with NGOs like Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, I aim to (carefully and lawfully) challenge the censorship of the internet and media by the government.
In 2007, Erdoğan’s political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), won its second election. During this period, the police found out about an alleged coup plot created by a secret organization called “Ergenekon”. Doğan Media Group’s newspapers reported on a corruption scandal in 2009 and was subsequently fined $2.5 million by the government; this forced the group to sell two newspapers to a government-aligned company. The discovery of Ergenekon led to many high-profile cases, and even to another coup plot in 2010 with the code-name “Sledgehammer”. Numerous journalists, judges, and teachers were convicted, along with hundreds of military officers. During the summer of 2013, a nationwide anti-government protest occured, and the police brutally put an end to the demonstration. At the height of this “crackdown,” mainstream media showed nothing and CNN Türk broadcast a documentary about penguins. In 2014, newspapers linked to Fethullah Gülen, an imam who fell from Erdoğan’s good grace’s, became the targets for police raids. These media companies were taken over by those trusted by and allied with the government. Following a coup plot in 2016, six journalists were sentenced to life in prison. In the past five years, Erdoğan has sued around 2,000 people for “insulting” him. As of this past spring, with the purchase of Doğan Media Group by a corporation loyal to Erdoğan, the Turkish government controls over 85% of national mainstream media. On January 8, 2019, journalist Pelin Ünker was convicted of “insulting a public official” and “libel” over two articles she had written discussing the “Paradise Papers”, which were 13.4 million “confidential electronic documents relating to offshore investments by around 120 high-profile names from around the world.” The government now blocks over 220,000 websites and 150,000 URLs. It’s clear that the government has an enormous amount of control over the mainstream media and internet.
Many journalists, however, consider the lack of solidarity between reporters and media workers another major cause of the fall in press freedom. Since Erdoğan became president in 2014, following 12 years as a major political player in the Turkish government, not only has he given himself executive powers by recently abolishing the country’s Parliament, but by also demanding Parliament pass a law in March forcing streaming and digital TV services “to register with Turkey’s media watchdog, known as RTUK, and abide by the same rules as television broadcasters. RTUK can impose penalties, revoke licences, force providers to censor or withdraw content, and ask the courts to block access to those who do not comply.” Additionally, Erdoğan has introduced more advanced and effective technology to block content. Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), for example, is a technology through which all of the data sent to internet service providers is examined. DPI gives authorities the power to block only specific content as opposed to an entire website. This allows for the government ro read and analyze all unencrypted data processed through the DPI technology, and intervene if they feel necessary. Erdoğan also has the Turkey Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) utilize an “innovative but dangerous” certification method. The BTK has created “an insecure certificate” that shows an error code when a user attempts to visit a blocked site. Due to the advanced nature of such a code, the average citizen won’t realize that the website has been blocked. The free VPN and proxy services that allow citizens to access blocked sites can also be dangerous; most of them can access internet traffic, and might interfere with it, collecting information on everything the user does.
All in all, Erdoğan has greatly decreased the press freedom of Turkish citizens and media workers since his rise to power in 2014, following a period of slight freedom in the 2000s.