Erdoğan seeks to confine corruption allegations to history with new law

The Turkish parliament ratified a bill regulating social media content early on Wednesday, which critics worry will be used to stifle dissent and criticism of the government. The new law has been published late Thursday evening.

Social media companies with more than one million users must appoint a legal representative in Turkey to address the authorities' concerns over content and includes deadlines for its removal. Social network providers would have 48 hours to respond to orders to remove offensive content.

Yaman Akdeniz, a cyber rights activist and professor of law at Istanbul Bilgi University, told Ahval the legislation was aimed at removing any content deemed inappropriate by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

He gave as an example the 2013 the December 17-25, 2013 corruption probe in which several politicians, all connected to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruing Justice and Development Party (AKP), were detained

"For example, when you search for news about December 17-25, you will only be able to access the news of the media close to the government,” Akdeniz. “The government will try to wash off its history. Therefore, we are entering a different phase," he said.

He said the AKP will likely seek to remove any content linking the ruling party with the outlawed Gülen movement, erstwhile allies turned foes of the AKP which the government blames for a failed military coup in 2016 and for launching a so-called “judicial coup" against them through the 2013 corruption probe.

As the vast majority of Turkey's mainstream media has already come under AKP government control, Turks have increasingly taken to social media and smaller online news outlets for critical voices and independent news.

Following a failed military coup in 2016, the AKP government closed more than 150 news outlets and jailed more than 100 journalists, often on terrorism-related accusations. Many journalists also often face charges of insulting the president.

Akdeniz said the former social media law in Turkey had proven problematic since its introduction in 2007, leading to an access ban on news outlets such as Ahval, OdaTV and a number of Kurdish news websites. He said the latest legislation is "an upgraded version" aiming to tighten the government's grip on online content.

"(Social media companies) will be compelled to comply with all blocking and removal decisions in addition to keeping and sharing all their users' data. This is the upgraded version of an already restrictive model which blocked over 400,000 websites and 130,000 URL addresses from Turkey," he said.

With the new law, companies could face fines up to 10 million liras ($1.5 million), blocked advertisements or have their bandwidth slashed by up to 90 percent, essentially blocking access.

Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a leading figure in Turkey’s human rights struggle and a pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) lawmaker, told Ahval that the new law will weaponise social media companies against voices critical of the government.

"Freedom of expression in Turkey is severely crippled. Anti-democratic pressures are increasing. While it is necessary to take steps towards improving rights and freedoms, the opposite is being done. Social media law is an effort aimed at shutting down the last refuge for the opposition," Gergerlioğlu said in a podcast with Ahval.

The law was proposed by the AKP lawmakers after thousands of young Turks posted comments slamming Erdoğan during a live online broadcast he held in June. Many then joined a hashtag campaign on Twitter entitled #OyMoyYok (Not getting my vote).

The legislation stipulates that social media giants like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and others must implement systems to confirm the ID of their users and appoint a legal representative in Turkey to whom courts can turn to make requests to remove content or provide the identity of users.

"An extremely troubled period will begin for social media network providers who have to have a representative in an authoritarian country. It will be like walking on a tightrope for them," Gergerlioğlu said.

Meanwhile, creating a database that ties social media accounts to official IDs would be very beneficial for Turkish intelligence and courts to access the identities of critics and intimidate the opposition, according to Gergerlioğlu.

"The silenced voices will become even more silenced. This will weaken the opposition on social media," he said.