Turkey Likely To Crack Down Harder on Freedom of Expression

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

July 19, 2016

In light of the recent coup attempt in Turkey, President Erdogan, seeking to counter the biggest threat yet to his 13-year rule, will assuredly double-down on authoritarian policies, which already have left privacy advocates reeling. Erdogan, who has stymied personal liberties in the past as a means to consolidate his power, is likely to further erode freedoms as he punishes those responsible for the coup attempt. In this purge, civil liberties are due to take a hit.

If you are reading this from Turkey and haven’t thought about a means of protecting your flow of information and discourse (like a VPN!) maybe now is the time.

In a move that foreshadows the oppression that is sure to follow, arrest warrants have been issued for at least 2,745 judges and prosecutors across the country, according to Turkish media reports. In some quarters there is talk of Erdogan himself having instigated the coup, in order to bolster his sagging popularity, and to quell dissident voices. His time in power, and his rise to power, seems to be littered with coups – real or metaphorical.

The response to a takeover is usually accompanied around a rallying around of Erdogan, and seemingly always presents him with a reason and opportunity for another round of repression of rights and liberties. As Henri Barkey, director of Middle East studies at the Wilson Center in Washington, notes,

Erdogan will use the sympathy the coup creates for him to his advantage. He will be more paranoid so he is likely to go hard with his purges, and in the process hurt a lot of people. Nobody will come out of this well.

But to better foretell the future, it would be instructive to view current events through the prism of the past…

We don’t have to venture too far afield with this event fresh in the public consciousness. A few days ago, our Ray Walsh wrote in these pages about the first actions by the government ,which may provide an inkling to what the future may hold. In the immediate minutes as the coup attempt unfolded, some websites such as Facebook and Twitter were cut off, to stop dissenters, journalists, and Turkish civilians from being able to communicate.

That has been a typical Erdogan response. As our Douglas Crawford reported some months ago, even the non-threatening and popular Minecraft was banned there. Many users from Turkey have also had problems accessing Google Search, Gmail accounts, YouTube, and many other websites that use Google services. The action against Google was only the latest assault on censored URLs by the government.

VPNs are growing more popular in Turkey due to the censorship and seemingly perpetual unrest. But not everyone in Turkey has access to a VPN. Many, as an alternative turned to Google Public DNS as a means of gaining vital information about what really was going on there. Google DNS, in addition to the censorship circumvention, has also been frequently used by Turkish investigative journalists to get to more sources of information.  Under pressure, but after denying it had ever censored Google DNS, the government lifted its ban. Its attempt at obfuscation only served to highlight its clumsiness and treachery.

This reaction reveals an even bigger problem with Turkey’s internet access, illustrating the government-private sector partnership in censorship and surveillance. The government’s cozy relationship with say, Turk Telecom, a formerly state-owned company that runs 80 percent of Turkey’s fiber-optics network, is an example of iron-fisted control combined with corruption. Through this government-private sector “partnership”, Erdogan can choose (and has chosen!) to limit access to information via price mechanisms.

In the future, one need only reflect on past actions to discern that the coup provides Erdogan with myriad opportunities to further erode freedoms under the banner of national security – or in this case national emergency. He can do it overtly by force, or subtly using his government/corporate connections. Regardless of whether or not he instigated this coup or not, he is the beneficiary.

And unlike his colleagues in the Western world, he doesn’t have to wait for existential threats such as terrorist attacks or mass migration to unleash the crackdown cudgel on personal freedoms. There’s enough going on from within Turkey to keep both him busy, and liberties under assault, for the foreseeable future.

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