SHAFAQNA- Stating that the Internet has been a key battleground for control in mass protests, corruption scandals and elections in Turkey, US-based rights watchdog Freedom House has said Internet freedom in Turkey experienced the sharpest decline in five years among 65 countries.
“Turkey declined 13 points as the government increased censorship, granted state agencies broad powers to block content, and charged more people for online expression,” the report said based on tracking results since 2009.
“With social media growing as a tool for public discourse, authorities have shut down YouTube, Twitter, and other platforms for months — even years — at a time. Online journalists and social media users are increasingly targeted for assault and prosecution,” it added.
In its “Freedom On The Net 2014” report released on Thursday, Freedom House said “Internet freedom around the world has declined for the fourth consecutive year, with a growing number of countries introducing online censorship and monitoring practices that are simultaneously more aggressive and more sophisticated in their targeting of individual users.”
The steepest declines for the last year were in Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. It also underlined that that Iran, Syria and China are the world’s worst abusers of overall Internet freedom.
Turkey was rated as “Partly Free” in the report.
This is the second blow to Turkey dealt by Freedom House. The advocacy group had earlier downgraded Turkey from “Partly Free” to “Not Free” in its “Freedom of the Press 2014” report issued in May, citing a “significant decline” in press freedom in Turkey.
The US-based watchdog Freedom House, which describes itself as “an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world,” listed measures that empowered government agencies to block content without judicial oversight and with little or no transparency.
The report criticized amendments to the law on the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) that was approved in April of 2014, saying the secretive agency was further insulated from judicial or media scrutiny. “The changes empower the intelligence service to obtain information and electronic data from public bodies, private companies, and individuals without a court order,” it noted.
The report, which covers the period between May 2013 and May 2014, assesses the level of Internet and digital-media freedom in 65 countries, with each receiving a score from 0 for the most free to 100 for the least free.
Turkey received a score of 55, which places it in the category of partly free.
The Freedom House said much of traditional Turkish media is owned or controlled by elements close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and as such refused to cover the events in May-June 2013 during which protestors staged demonstrations against the government over construction of a shopping mall on a green site in İstanbul’s Beyoğlu district. It said most of the coverage was then moved to online channels and social media.
“This led [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan to label Twitter ‘the worst menace to society’ as part of an overall strategy of demonizing and discrediting social media, one of the few forms of information that is not yet controlled by progovernment individuals,” it explained.
It noted that the amount of blocked websites has increased by 11,000 since then, reaching over 40,000 by April 2014.
Social media took another blow when recordings posted to YouTube allegedly revealing wiretapped conversations between top government officials, including Erdoğan, which appeared to implicate many in corruption allegations. The government then moved to pass new judicial laws in February of 2014 that hampered judicial independence and led to a major reshuffle in police and judiciary.
The government escalated its fight against social media in lead up to the March 30 local elections during which Twitter and YouTube were blocked in its entirety as part of efforts to limit the flow of information to the public. The bans on Twitter and YouTube were later overturned by the Constitutional Court.
“Turkish users also faced increased arrests and legal prosecution for their online activities,” the report stated, stressing that dozens of people were charged with inciting protests or defaming the prime minister over tweets relating to the Gezi Park demonstrations.
The advocacy group said the “passage of restrictive laws, mounting physical assaults on online journalists, and cyberattacks against independent news sites during critical periods contributed to an overall decline in Turkish users’ digital rights over the past year.”
The report says that Iran remains the worst country in the world for Internet freedom, despite initial hopes over the election of reformist President Hassan Rohani. It says the government continued to hand down harsh punishments, sentencing people to lengthy jail terms for promoting Sufism online, among other online activities.