The 2023 Turkish elections, touted as one of the most crucial political events in the country’s recent history, have drawn international attention due to their potential to reshape the country’s political landscape. The electoral contest is primarily between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has held the presidency for the past 21 years, and his primary challenger, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the presidential candidate of an opposition alliance of six parties. The election is of high stakes, with Erdoğan facing the most challenging election of his career, and surveys indicating a close race between him and Kılıçdaroğlu.
Amid this intensely fought political battle, the role of internet freedom and censorship has emerged as a key concern. Prominent rights organizations, ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch (HRW), have expressed worries about the Turkish government’s control over the digital ecosystem. These organizations argue that the government’s potential to exert significant control over the internet could undermine the electoral outcome. The government’s history of silencing dissenting opinions online and the vast array of digital censorship tools at its disposal have only intensified these concerns. As the election draws closer, the spotlight is firmly on the issue of online censorship and its potential ramifications on the democratic process in Turkey.
Concerns Over Internet Censorship
Internet censorship in Turkey is not a new phenomenon, rather it’s a well-established pattern. The government has been known to silence dissenting opinions online, employing a vast array of digital censorship tools to exercise control. A controversial media law passed in October 2022 compels social media companies to share users’ information with authorities if they post content deemed criminal, including misleading information. This law also requires companies to appoint Turkish representatives, threatening to cut bandwidth by up to 90 percent following a court order if the representative fails to comply. These measures underline the government’s determination to control the digital ecosystem and its readiness to suppress information flow when necessary.
In light of these realities, ARTICLE 19 and HRW have raised an alarm about the potential for nationwide censorship, particularly during the electoral period. The rights groups argue that the Turkish government has accelerated its efforts to enforce censorship and tighten control over social media and independent online news sites in the lead-up to the election. They express concerns that the government might use its digital arsenal to undermine the outcome of the election, curbing freedom of expression, and influencing the public perception of the electoral process.
Censorship has profound implications for the electorate’s access to accurate and diverse sources of information. Freedom House warned in March that thousands of websites are blocked in Turkey, obstructing voters’ ability to access varied sources of information ahead of the vote. This limitation can skew public understanding of the candidates and the issues, potentially affecting the voters’ decision-making process. Consequently, the threat of censorship is not just a matter of free speech but also of the integrity of the electoral process itself.
The Role of Social Media and Technology Companies
The Turkish government’s controversial media law, which took effect in October 2022, places significant burdens on social media companies. It requires these companies to share user information with authorities if the content posted is deemed criminal, which includes misleading information. This law also mandates that these companies appoint Turkish representatives, and threatens severe penalties, such as cutting bandwidth by up to 90 percent, should the representative fail to provide the necessary information to authorities. This law presents a significant challenge to the global privacy standards that many companies abide by, and analysts warn that compliance could set dangerous precedents for other countries looking to exert control over social platforms.
The response of Twitter and its CEO, Elon Musk, to the impending potential for censorship has been the subject of intense scrutiny. Musk engaged with users on Twitter after the announcement of potential blockage or limitation of tweets in Turkey. His statements indicated that the Turkish government had reached out to Twitter about the upcoming election, causing further concern. Musk argued that the choice was between having Twitter throttled in its entirety or limiting access to some tweets, presenting a significant dilemma for the platform.
In light of these developments, rights groups have urged social media platforms and messaging services to prioritize human rights over profits. ARTICLE 19 and HRW argue that these platforms have a responsibility to protect the right of voters in Turkey to participate in a democratic election. They are called upon to resist government pressure, put in place contingency plans against throttling, and reject demands for user data or content removal that could undermine the integrity of the election. Balancing the commitment to user privacy and the pressure from the Turkish government represents a significant challenge for these companies in the run-up to the elections.
Alternatives to Musk’s Approach and the Need for Decentralized Communication
Elon Musk’s response to the potential censorship attempts by the Turkish government has been met with critique. While the transparency he provided regarding the situation is commendable, critics argue that his approach could have been more proactive in safeguarding digital rights. Rather than acquiescing to potential blockage or limitation of tweets, Musk could have used the opportunity to challenge the Turkish government’s censorship attempts more directly.
One way that Musk could have done this is by encouraging Turkish Twitter users to use the Tor network or VPNs. These tools allow users to access the internet anonymously, making it harder for governments to block or censor their online activity. They could potentially provide a valuable means for Turkish citizens to circumvent the government’s censorship attempts and access independent news and diverse sources of information during the election period.
Beyond these immediate measures, the situation in Turkey underscores the broader importance of decentralized means of communication, particularly in politically hostile regimes. Decentralized communication networks, which are not controlled by a single entity, can provide a resilient platform for free expression and open dialogue. They are less susceptible to government control and censorship, making them crucial for preserving democratic participation in countries like Turkey.
In light of these considerations, technology companies like Twitter have a potential role to play in promoting these alternatives and advocating for digital rights. This could involve providing information and resources about tools like Tor and VPNs, supporting the development of decentralized communication networks, and resisting governmental pressures that threaten digital freedom. While the situation in Turkey presents a complex challenge, it also provides an opportunity for technology companies to affirm their commitment to upholding digital rights and protecting the integrity of the democratic process.
Potential Impact of Censorship on the Elections
The potential for censorship poses a significant challenge for voters in Turkey. The ability to access independent news, express personal views on social media, and engage in open dialogue about the elections is a fundamental aspect of democratic participation. The Turkish government’s tightening control over social media and independent online news sites may inhibit this process. Thousands of people, including journalists, face investigation and prosecution in Turkey for exercising their freedom of expression in their social media posts, indicating the considerable risk involved in discussing politics online. This climate of fear and control may prevent voters from fully engaging in the democratic process, potentially skewing the electoral outcome.
The dilemma facing social media companies, as articulated by Twitter CEO Elon Musk, further complicates the situation. The choice between having social platforms throttled entirely or limiting access to some tweets represents a difficult decision for these platforms. On the one hand, complete throttling would severely limit the Turkish public’s access to these platforms, curtailing their ability to access independent news and express their views. On the other hand, limiting access to some tweets, presumably those that the government deems undesirable, would amount to participating in the government’s censorship efforts. This decision could have significant implications for the role of these platforms in the election and for the integrity of the electoral process itself.
In this challenging environment, the role of international bodies, human rights organizations, and technology companies in safeguarding democratic processes becomes increasingly important. They bear the responsibility of holding the Turkish government accountable for any potential infringement on the freedom of expression, advocating for the rights of Turkish citizens to access independent and diverse sources of information, and resisting governmental pressures that could compromise the integrity of the electoral process. As Turkey heads to the polls, the world watches closely to see how these complex dynamics unfold and shape the future of democracy in the country.
Originally from Iran, Naser travels the Middle East giving talks on the importance of privacy education and the fight against government censorship. With a deep commitment to advocating for digital rights, Naser’s lectures provide a unique perspective and inspire individuals to take action in their own communities. He has a wealth of knowledge on the complex privacy issues facing Iran and other countries in the region, and believes that everyone has a role to play in this struggle for privacy and digital freedom.