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Journalist Mehmet Altan at PEN International panel on Free Expression in the New Turkey. Altan recently discovered through court documents that his phone had been tapped at the request of Turkish intelligence agency, MIT.

Journalist Mehmet Altan at PEN International panel on Free Expression in the New Turkey. Altan recently discovered through court documents that his phone had been tapped at the request of Turkish intelligence agency, MIT.

Turkey’s appalling internet freedom record came under intense scrutiny as the country hosted a UN-sponsored internet public policy conference 2-5 September. Despite the Turkish government’s expanded censorship of online content, the prosecution of social media users and the introduction of sweeping new laws, the country was selected to host the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), an annual meeting convened by the United Nations secretary-general, which brings together governments, civil society, and others as equal partners to discuss public policy issues related to the internet.

PEN was disappointed that many proposals for panel discussions to the IGF by free expression groups – which set out to examine the Turkish government’s increased repression of critical voices – were rejected by the conveners of the conference. Despite attempts to silence criticism of the Turkish government, civil society groups used the opportunity of the IGF to highlight Turkey’s increasingly repressive laws and practices on the margins of the conference. PEN International and the Swedish Consulate hosted an event “Freedom of Expression in the New Turkey” with writers Mehmet Altan and Bejan Matur which drew attention to the increased repression of writers, bloggers and journalists critical of the Turkish government on both online and offline media.

PEN is concerned that the lack of action by the Turkish authorities to improve the situation of online free expression in the country ahead of, or during, the IGF demonstrates a total disregard on Turkey’s part for the principles of an open internet espoused by the IGF.

This is not the first time that the IGF has been held in a country with a poor free expression climate. In 2012, Azerbaijan, a country with an egregious human rights record hosted the IGF.  Two years later the free expression situation in the country, rather than improving, has dramatically deteriorated, with the government using sweeping defamation laws to censor online content and harass journalists and editors. For the IGF to have a meaningful impact in host countries, PEN calls on the UN to ensure that countries selected to host the forum fulfill internationally-recognised standards of free expression as elaborated in the ICCPR and that constructive criticism of the host country’s internet policies is enabled at the forum.

In recent years, the Turkish authorities have used the draconian Internet Law 5651 to block tens of thousands of websites. Twitter and YouTube which have been used to organise protests and call for political reform were famously banned earlier this year ahead of municipal elections and following the exposure of a corruption scandal when  wiretaps of conversations between officials were leaked on social media.  Despite drawing widespread criticism from the UN, EU and US governments, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then the prime minister, vowed to “eradicate Twitter” and other social media. Access to Twitter and YouTube were restored in April and June respectively by order of the Constitutional Court, which called the blanket block on Twitter “illegal, arbitrary and a serious restriction on the right to obtain information.”

Another worrying trend has been the increasing use of defamation, religious defamation and public order laws in order to crack down on online expressions of dissent, attempts to organize peaceful protest via social media as well as expressions of legitimate political and religious criticism in blogs, articles and social media posts online. The chilling effect that these cases are intended to have on writers, journalists, bloggers and social media users is part of a wider attempt by the government to control public debate and access to information in the public sphere. This has been most clearly manifested in the recent use of the controversial internet law to block access to online news coverage of speeches and parliamentary questions by opposition politicians relating to allegations of corruption involving senior government figures and their families.

Turkey has long been a focus country for PEN International’s free expression work and our recent reports on the Gezi Park protests and our joint UPR submission to the UN on the situation of free expression in the country draw particular attention to the abysmal situation of free expression online.

For further information on PEN International’s digital freedom work, please contact International Policy and Advocacy Officer, Sarah Clarke on sarah.clarke@pen-international.org. For further information on PEN’s Turkey work, please contact Alev Yaman, alev.yaman@pen-international.org.