‘In my view’, President Gül tweeted, ‘in principal no freedom should be curbed. Everybody who wants to should be able to surf the internet freely’. That was on 28 May 2011. It may give some people hope that Gül will use his veto right to stop the new internet law from taking effect. But I doubt it.
The bill passed parliament last Wednesday and caused a wave of criticism both inside Turkey and abroad. The biggest problems with the new measures: bureaucrats can now block access to sites without a court order (and you need to go to court to try to get the decision reversed), they can block access to specific pages on sites, several techniques to get around the new regulations will be illegal, and last but not least: the privacy of internet users is violated because data about online activities of web users can be stored for two years and be made available to the authorities upon request.
Human Rights Watch has now started a campaign to urge President Gül to use his veto to stop the law coming into effect. Of course it is worth a try, but I don’t think Gül will do so. He has been called upon to use his veto before, for example to not sign the bill that bans medical professionals in certain circumstances from helping wounded people (read: protestors), and earlier a bill to re-organize the education system. He never did.
Gül has only rarely used his veto power since he became president in 2007, and mostly over technicalities concerning laws that don’t arouse any public debate, like a law concerning rules for accountants and financial consultants in 2008, and in 2009 a bill about social security. The last time he reportedly used it was last December, when he rejected proposals PM Erdogan made for a cabinet reshuffle and Erdogan had to come up with new names for several posts – but this veto is unconfirmed and doesn’t concern any law.
But how then can the president not veto a law that restricts internet freedom when he so openly stated he thinks everybody should be able to surf the internet freely? First, it seems the president doesn’t use his veto power on matters of principle but more on technicalities. But second, it could be that he actually thinks this new law does not curb any freedoms, and in fact enhances freedoms.
Adultery in secret
At least, that is how the government explains the bill. It has stressed several times that the bill is not increasing censorship and violating privacy, but on the contrary is protecting people’s privacy. How? Access to sites and pages can be blocked if people’s privacy is being violated. An example often used (not by the government though) is the infamous ‘sex tapes’ that caused the fall of several politicians from opposition parties CHP and MHP in 2010 and 2011. If you explain the law that way, you can claim to be pro freedom on one hand and at the same time introduce restrictions.
Not that I am convinced, by the way: it’s like the AKP government standing up for people’s right to commit adultery in secret. And one of the first bans is already in force: access was blocked to a YouTube video allegedly broadcasting a conversation of the Prime Minister’s daughter negotiating the purchase of a villa. Many people don’t doubt the law will be used to try to prevent leaking of all kinds of videos and phone conversations that get the government into trouble, and even articles.
Turkey is a country of mind-boggling contradictions. I have seen many in the years since I have been here. Leftists being ultra nationalists. Feminists being against broader rights for women. Democrats being in favour of military coups. And now possibly freedom advocates approving serious internet restrictions. To fathom the line of thinking of these people is an intriguing way to understand Turkey better.