Turkey Increases Control Over Internet Amid Corruption Probe

Turkey’s parliament approved a bill giving Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government broader powers to block access to websites, as wiretaps allegedly documenting official corruption were being shared on the Internet.

Legislators late yesterday authorized the head of Turkey’s telecommunications authority to ban access to content deemed to violate personal privacy within four hours of a petition, eliminating the need for a court order. Access can be unblocked if a judge decides against it within 48 hours.

The legislation was introduced shortly after alleged wiretapped conversations among government officials and businessmen hit the Internet, reinforcing suspicions of influence-peddling. It has increased concerns about curbs on free speech in Turkey under Erdogan, who drew European condemnation for cracking down on protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in June and for dismissing police and prosecutors in response to the graft probe.

“The government is tightening controls over the Internet to block dissemination of allegations of corruption against it, instead of answering them,” Hasan Oren, a lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, said by phone today. “The move will certainly draw the ire of Europe for violating freedom of expression. I am afraid Turkey is being dragged toward a dictatorship.”

‘Serious Concerns’

The European Union, which is weighing Turkey’s candidacy for membership, said it was alarmed by the “restrictions of freedom of expression.”

The Turkish bill “is raising serious concerns here,” Peter Stano, spokesman for EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, told reporters in Brussels today. “The Turkish public deserves more information and more transparency, not more restrictions,” Stano said adding that the law “needs to be revised in line with European standards.”

Transportation Minister Lutfi Elvan rejected charges that the government is cracking down on free speech.

Allegations of “censorship on the Internet have nothing to do with truth,” Elvan told a televised news conference in Ankara. He said work on the bill has been under way for 1 1/2 years and wasn’t related to Gezi Park protests or the graft probe.

The bill, which holds Internet providers responsible for blocking access to content of a criminal nature and keeping records of user traffic, must be signed by President Abdullah Gul to become law.

‘Last Preserve’

“Cyberspace was the last preserve of open exchange of ideas really left now in Turkey without the interference of the state,” Fadi Hakura, a Turkey analyst at the Chatham House think-tank in London, said by phone today. “This law has added a further regulation on cyber freedom.”

The Internet law comes as Erdogan’s government is already facing criticism for repression of traditional media.

Turkey was ranked 154th out of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index in 2013, behind Mexico and ahead of Swaziland. There were 49 journalists in jail in Turkey as of December, making it the world’s worst jailer of journalists, according to the New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Erdogan said during a visit to Germany on Feb. 4 that most reporters jailed in Turkey were tied to terrorist organizations, and he criticized Reporters Without Borders for urging the Turkish parliament to reject what it called the “draconian Internet bill.” “Reporters Without Borders doesn’t know its boundaries,” the premier said.

Opposition Leader

Atilla Kart, another Republican lawmaker, accused Erdogan yesterday of controlling Haberturk television’s broadcasting policy. He cited a wiretapped conversation in which Erdogan gave instructions to an official at the channel last year to stop broadcasting remarks by Devlet Bahceli, head of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party. Erdogan’s office didn’t respond today to calls seeking comment.

“Turkey today is a country where the prime minister even decides whether the words of the opposition leader should be made known or not,” Ozcan Yeniceri, a Nationalist lawmaker, said yesterday.

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