On July 29th, 2020, the Parliament of Turkey passed a controversial bill to regulate content posted on social media platforms, which will come into effect on October 1st, 2020. The bill is expected to have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and expression within the country. Several human rights groups are viewing it as a political tactic to curb criticism against government functionaries within the country, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The passing of the bill is a concerning development, especially amidst the pandemic when social media platforms exist as one of the few alternatives through which people can assess and denounce wrongful government actions.
In Turkey, print and broadcast media platforms are already under government control. In such a scenario, social media platforms are one of the few outlets through which citizens can voice their independent opinions. Under the new bill, social media giants like Facebook and Twitter are expected to have local representatives in Turkey. They are also required to comply with court orders over the removal of certain content. The bill demands social media companies to store user data within Turkey, which also raises privacy concerns. The new law could see companies facing fines, blocking of advertisements, or have bandwidth slashed by up to 90 percent, which could essentially block people’s access to their sites. All these measures are severely expected to increase censorship, which would be a major blot on the exercise of free expression within the country.
The bill goes against Turkey’s international commitments to protect free speech and expression within the nation, which is reflected through its ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”). Article 19(2) of the ICCPR provides for the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds through any form of media. This right can be restricted only for the purposes of protecting the rights and reputation of others, national security, public order, health, or morals. General Comment No. 34 rightly states that the freedom of expression is the founding stone for every democratic society. It leads to transparency and accountability that further helps in the protection of human rights. Paragraphs 42 and 43 assert that the penalization of media outlets or restricting information dissemination systems, solely because they may be critical of the government, lies beyond the permissible restrictions on the exercise of free speech and expression. On account of these requirements, the passing of the bill in the present case cannot be justified.
In particular, Turkey’s obligation to protect freedom of expression draws inspiration from Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”). In the judgment of Sunday Times v. United Kingdom, the ECHR demonstrated how any restriction on free speech and expression “must be established convincingly” and in keeping with a “pressing social need”. The absence of exigent circumstances prior to the approval of the bill makes its intentions questionable. Moreover, past instances of censorship portray how the bill merely seeks to stifle dissent to make people adhere to the government’s notions of right and wrong.
Turkey leads the world in removal requests to Twitter, with more than 6,000 demands in the first half of 2019. By the end of 2019, Turkey had blocked access to 400,000 websites. A ban imposed on Wikipedia in 2017 was lifted only in January 2020 after a court decision. The organization, Reporters without Borders, ranks Turkey at 157 out of 180 countries in a global index for media freedom. In a nation where criminal proceedings are regularly instituted against the critics of the President, it is not difficult to imagine that such a bill operates according to the same objectives. This also goes against the spirit of Articles 26, 27 and 28 of the Turkish Constitution.
One cannot undermine the significance of the freedom of speech and expression in a democratic society. Given current tumultuous times, social media platforms act as important agents for bridging the gap between government directives and people’s assessment of the same. Popular criticism cannot be banned over alleged notions of “immorality”. Such draconian measures threaten to destroy the very foundation of a free and informed society.
Human rights organizations and activists around the world, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, have censured this move of the Turkish Parliament. International outcry, coupled with active efforts of civil society organizations, can ensure that the provisions of this bill are not used in a mala fide manner. Against this backdrop, there is an urgent need for the government to carefully deliberate upon this measure. This becomes imperative considering that the duty to uphold and protect freedom of speech and expression, first and foremost, lies with the government.
Akshita Tiwary is a 3rd-year law student at Government Law College, Mumbai. She serves as a Staff Writer for JURIST, and is keenly interested in international law, human rights, and constitutional law.
Suggested citation: Akshita Tiwary, Analysing the Effects of Turkey’s Social Media Regulation Bill, JURIST – Student Commentary, September 17, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/09/akshita-tiwary-turkey-social-media-bill/.
This article was prepared for publication by Khushali Mahajan, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org