By Ayşe Düzkan, ECPMF Journalist in Residence
There was always censorship and restrictions on the media in Turkey but on the night of May 31, 2013 something happened that exceeded this. When people from all over the country took to the streets to protest against the government and the cutting down of trees for a construction site in Gezi Park, CNNTURK was broadcasting a documentary about penguins.
Since that night, penguins became the symbol of government interference in the media in Turkey and the Gezi protests. A few months later, when the pressure on the press began to intensify, a banner being carried at a protest organised by journalists had “Penguins are Only Nice in the North Pole” written on it.
That was when social media and especially Twitter began gaining importance for people living in Turkey. Information about what was happening was supplied through citizen reports over social media. This was a different situation from the organisation of people over social media in the Arab Spring. There were developments that occurred after Gezi that changed the structure of the media. The important channels on the mainstream media were handed over to government supporters using financial pressure. Media supporting the government was sustained financially by the municipalities. In fact, when metropolitan municipalities changed hands last year, some government-supported newspapers were forced to stop printing on paper.
Today, almost everyone in Turkey, including those who voted for the ruling party, follows current affairs on digital media. The incident that was the last straw was when a speech of President Erdoğan, was broadcast on YouTube and received thousands of dislikes. It was not possible to control internet users! They write everything they hear and that comes into their heads; the lives of government members, and their spending habits! Thus, the regulation restricting social media passed by Parliament amidst an economic crisis and a pandemic, places Turkey at a whole new stage of penguinisation.
The regulation requires social media network providers of foreign origin like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to have at least one representative in Turkey and, what’s more important, to keep their data in Turkey. If they do not comply, a number of measures will be taken including bandwidth restriction, advertisement bans and content restrictions. This means that the monitoring of content will increase and accelerate. If content that is ordered to be removed by a court ruling is not taken down within 24 hours, the company will be required to pay damages. If the government demands it, companies will be required to submit information on anonymous accounts, which is one of the most critical points in my opinion, because many Turkish users use pseudonyms to avoid censorship. Yet, with this new regulation, it will become possible to identify the owners of anonymous accounts.
Additionally, it will not be possible to share news that the ruling party does not like. In Turkey, many police violence cases only came to light through social media. Similarly, many murders of women that were unsolved or unpunished were made public due to pressure from the social media and the perpetrators were put on trial and prosecuted. With the new law, these will all become impossible. When you share news of a website on the social media it may encounter a ban, in fact, many sites have been closed numerous times. For example, sendika.org is going for a record number of bans. It has been closed and reopened exactly 63 times. The issue is not limited to this; while writing this article access to Hornet, a social network for homosexuals, was banned. Before that, Grindr was banned. This is an indication that these restrictions don’t just target news but also lifestyles that are condemned by the ruling party.
Nevertheless, years of censorship have led opponents living in Turkey to gain serious preparedness in digital techniques. The majority knows ways to get around the restrictions including Virtual Private Networks (VPN). Young people born in the 2000s to economically powerful families called ‘Generation Z’ which, are of special interest to AKP psrty, literally came into the world with smart phones in their hands. So, they are totally in command of these techniques.
However many of those who follow the developments on social media and/or oppositional media are ruling party supporters, and in command of these techniques, So it is likely that they will abstain from using these channels, at least openly. It therefore means that the ruling party is in effect cutting off the channels for news from its own voters. Let us see how long the penguin holds up…