Turkish President Abdullah Gul told his 4.3 million followers on Twitter yesterday that he shared their concerns about a restrictive new Internet bill.
Then he said he’d signed it into law anyway, promising follow-up legislation on two points he didn’t specify. His follower count dropped by about 80,000 as Turks opened a campaign with the hashtag, “UnFollowAbdullahGul.”
The law, which lets the government block websites without a court order, was introduced amid a graft scandal that’s roiled markets and forced three of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ministers to quit. Gul’s refusal to use his veto power to quash the measure suggests he won’t challenge Erdogan ahead of Turkey’s first direct presidential elections in August.
“This episode shows that there is almost complete cooperation between the two,” Fadi Hakura, an analyst at the London-based Chatham House research center, said by phone. Against talk of growing tension between Gul and Erdogan, it shows their relationship involves “minor maneuvering, and not a cataclysmic power struggle,” Hakura said.
Gul’s reluctance to veto legislation introduced by Erdogan’s Justice and Development party has earned him the nickname, “the Notary of Cankaya,” a reference to the district that houses the presidential palace in Ankara. Turkey’s president is required by law to cut any affiliation with political parties and is expected to be non-partisan.
Erdogan, who has called the corruption probe a “coup attempt,” says the new Internet law protects users and brings more freedom to the web.
“Censorship is not coming to the Internet, freedoms aren’t being curtailed,” he told lawmakers from his party in parliament yesterday. “We’re only taking precautions against immorality, blackmail and threats.”
Erdogan blames the corruption probe on followers of a U.S.- based Islamic leader, Fethullah Gulen, saying they’ve created a “parallel state” in Turkey. The protests against the government last summer and the corruption probe are backed by the same “boss,” he said yesterday, without elaborating.
The political crisis over the investigation accelerated a sell-off in Turkey sparked by the U.S. Federal Reserve’s announcement in May that it would taper monetary stimulus. Since detentions began on Dec. 17, the stock market has declined 22 percent in dollar terms, the most worldwide. The lira has dropped 7.6 percent against the dollar and benchmark two-year bond yields rose almost two percentage points to 10.88 percent as of 4:30 p.m. in Istanbul today.
Turkey holds local elections on March 30, presidential balloting in August and parliamentary elections next year. While Erdogan hasn’t announced he’ll run for president, his party has an internal rule allowing lawmakers to serve only three consecutive terms, meaning his final term as prime minister would end in 2015. Erdogan is his party’s top choice for president, party spokesman Huseyin Celik said last month.
The new law lets Turkey’s Presidency of Telecommunication, or TIB, block websites within four hours should it deem content to contain privacy violations. TIB chief Cemaleddin Celik was appointed on Dec. 23, six days after three sons of cabinet ministers were detained in the graft probe, which includes allegations of bribery, bid rigging and gold smuggling. Celik formerly worked in Erdogan’s office and for Turkey’s national intelligence service.
“Its most damaging immediate implication is that it will allow the government to shut down news about corruption allegations in the name of protecting the sanctity of politicians’ personal lives,” Dogan Akin, the Istanbul-based editor-in-chief of news website T24, said by phone today. The law also requires Internet providers to track and keep records of usage, which “will be devastating for the secrecy of journalists’ sources,” he said.
Turkey is a European Union candidate, and EU officials have expressed concern that the new law worsens the country’s already tarnished record on free speech. Turkey ranks 154th of 179 countries on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, sandwiched between Iraq and Gambia. For the second year in a row, Turkey was the world’s biggest jailer of journalists in 2013, with 40 behind bars, according to a Dec. 18 report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
“Turkey has Internet laws that are restrictive by world standards, let alone European standards,” the European Green Party said in a Feb. 17 posting on its web page.
Parliament also approved a bill on Feb. 15 that gives the government greater say over the appointment of judges and prosecutors. The legislation was approved after the government replaced about 7,000 police officers and dozens of prosecutors pursuing the corruption investigations. Gul has 15 days to sign a bill, veto it or send it back to parliament for revisions.
The EU is assessing the bill’s potential impact “on the impartiality and independence of the Turkish judiciary” Peter Stano, a spokesman for EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, told reporters in Brussels on Feb. 17.
“There are limits to the extent to which the rule of law can be willfully undermined,” Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, said by phone from Brussels today. “I think that needs to be clear.”
Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrators protesting the Internet curbs in Istanbul on Feb. 8, shortly after parliament approved the draft bill. Millions took to the streets in June, when a small demonstration against the destruction of Istanbul’s Gezi Park swelled into a mass protest against Erdogan’s perceived authoritarianism. Seven people were killed.
Erdogan’s party won the last elections with almost 50 percent of ballots cast, and the Internet law left Gul with a difficult choice as politicians and voters prepare to decide on the nation’s political future, Joost Lagendijk, former joint chairman of the Turkey-EU parliamentarians delegation and columnist at Today’s Zaman newspaper, said by phone today.
“The backdrop is obviously that he’s playing a tactical game,” Lagendijk said. “In the long run he doesn’t want a fight with Erdogan.”
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