A man's hands hold a tablet against a backdrop of people seated in groups.
A man tries to get connected to YouTube with his tablet at a cafe in Istanbul on March 27, 2014. A Turkish social media law is being used to censor news websites, journalists told CPJ. (Reuters/Osman Orsal)

Turkish social media law consolidates news censorship under ‘right to be forgotten’

In late 2020, a Turkish court ruled that the leftist daily Evrensel should remove a news report alleging that a presidential advisor forged their high school diploma. Evrensel complied, Erdi Tütmez, news editor for the outlet told CPJ by email in January; the report was no longer available when CPJ reviewed the site, though it was not an exclusive, and related reports were still accessible on Evrensel  and other websites.

Tütmez said that court’s justification for the order involving Evrensel cited the “right to be forgotten,” the principle that someone can get information they perceive as damaging taken offline or hidden, which has just been formally established in Turkish law, according to CPJ interviews and local news reports.

The “right to be forgotten” established by a top European court in 2014 lets people petition companies to remove online search results about themselves, as long as the information is not considered to be in the public interest. CPJ said at the time that the broad standard could be used to suppress journalism, then followed the emergence of copycat laws in different countries with concern.

Indeed, the Turkish law is already being invoked to require news websites to remove articles, according to CPJ interviews. Law No. 7253, which was approved in July and came into effect on October 1, has been popularly described as a social media law. As CPJ noted before it passed, it requires social media companies with over 1 million Turkish users to open offices, hire representatives, and store Turkish user data on servers locally, or face heavy fines, advertising bans, or blocking.  

Yet in addition to clauses on social media, the law has streamlined the way courts can order news reports to be blocked or removed from websites without a hearing – and increased penalties for non-compliance, local journalists and censorship monitors say. While news outlets are not subject to the same multi-million dollar fines as social media companies, they could still face penalties of up to 100,000 Turkish lira (US$13,000), according to CPJ’s review of the law.

While the government can issue blocking orders without oversight, Turkish authorities – and individuals – also have a track record of suppressing undesirable news reporting through the courts, as CPJ has documented; if a court decides the content violated the rights of a complainant, it can order internet service providers to block the web address. A report from the local anti-censorship group Free Web Turkey, published in January, found that 1,910 URLs, domain names, and social media posts were censored by courts or Turkish authorities between November 1, 2019, and October 31, 2020. Of those links, 65% hosted news-related content, and nearly half of those were reporting on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his family, or his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), the report found. Reports about blocked content were also subject to censorship, according to the report.

CPJ e-mailed the Directorate of Communications of the Presidency of the Republic of Turkey for comment on whether privacy rights were being used to censor news in Turkey, but received noimmediate reply. 

The courts can issue censorship orders via the Access Providers Association, a member-funded group of internet service providers whose website notes that it was founded by law in 2014 so that censorship orders would be put into effect more efficiently. Since the Association technically cannot block individual articles protected with HTTPS encryption, they forward some court orders to media outlets by email and ask them to remove the articles, Erdi Tütmez told CPJ.

The new law specifies that blocking “and/or removal” orders from the association should be fulfilled within four hours, upgrading the existing internet-related Law No. 5651, which defined the blocking procedure, according to CPJ’s review. The association is also authorized to pass court rulings on to search engines, notifying them to withhold links to the same content. Multiple Google search results for different Turkish-language keywords, viewed by CPJ from Turkey in early 2021, included a notification that “Some results may have been delisted consistent with local laws.” Google publishes examples of content removal requests it has received in Turkey and says it has declined to delist some search results following court orders; one example available on their transparency reporting website in March said it had not removed 50 URLs “containing unmerited appointment accusations about the advisor of a political figure,” without elaborating on the details.    

Barış Avşar, publishing coordinator for the online newspaper Gazete Duvar, told CPJ: “There is a partial increase in content removal orders since the legislation changed.” In a January email, he said that his publication had received more notifications about articles alleged to violate an individual’s “right to be forgotten.”

Erdi Tütmez also described a recent increase in orders requiring news outlets to take down their own published articles. Tütmez told CPJ that Evrensel did not comply with many court orders before the legislation changed, and would still resist them under certain circumstances. If a businessman tried to get a court to censor reports about a fatal incident at a factory resulting from neglect, he said, citing a hypothetical example, “we consider the higher public interest.”

“We would not abide by such an order whether it comes from a court or the Access Providers Association,” he said.

Avşar also said that Gazete Duvar’s approach to takedown orders had changed when Law No. 7253 took effect. He told CPJ that colleagues had not paid much attention to court orders in the past, choosing to remove a story only if there was something wrong with it, and ignoring rulings that were “obviously political.” Now, they take the court notifications more seriously, consulting their lawyers and acting accordingly, Avşar said – though he added that Gazete Duvar had still opted to leave some reporting online despite a removal order.  

It may be too early to assess the overall impact of the law, but Engelliweb, which is run by the Turkish Freedom of Expression Association (known locally as İFOD),  reported 28 orders to block or remove online content in December 2020, up from 15 in November, and all involving news or political information.The number of items named in the orders ranged froma single tweet, a news outlet’s entire website, or multiple news reports on a specific topic published by one outlet. The project does not report whether the orders were followed or not.

However, the incentives have clearly changed. “The new legislation creates a bigger potential threat combined with the other financial pressures on the newspaper,” Tütmez said. “We remove news stories that we don’t think are worth insisting over.”

Editor’s note: The spelling of Erdi Tütmez’ name has been corrected.

CPJ researcher Hakkı Özdal contributed to this report.