When a terrorist attack happens in Europe, thousands of messages are tweeted, people check their Facebook timelines or go to the internet in order to seek for information. When a terrorist attack happens in Turkey, internet gets shutdown, several journalists and researches denounced this situation at the International Journalism Festival session on ‘Turkey: internet shutdowns, an emerging threat to journalism’.
Internet shutdowns in Turkey are a source of troubles for journalists, especially in cases of crisis or emergencies. They do not have access to media sources, nor to any other kind of online information. They have issues to produce the story and, when they manage to do so, they cannot share it. Isik Mater, director at Turkey Blocks, says that it took her and her colleagues some time to understand that the government was responsible for the internet shutdowns. And, she insists, those attacks to the net were often following major terrorists attacks. So the journalists, Ms. Mater underlines, were not able to do their job during major (newsworthy) events.
The internet, says Gulsin Harman from the International Press Institute, is crucial in Turkey for journalist because it is the only way for them to access independent information. Therefore, the shutdowns are an attack not only to journalism but also to press freedom, and to democracy. Ms. Harman insists that social media are the only space where journalists can share information and engage with people. Which makes it even more unfortunate that Twitter and Facebook are often among the primary targets of targeted internet shutdowns.
According to Alp Toker, founder of Turkey Blocks, Bandwidth throttling (i.e. the intentional slowing of Internet service) not only makes the work of journalists more difficult but it also helps to silence critical voices in case of national crisis. According to Toker, through this, the Turkish government can control the narrative. Without internet shutdowns, the official message could instead be challenged. “The authorities have now absolute control over the tools to prevent the journalists from doing their work”, Toker denounces.
Efe Kerem Sözeri, editor-in-chief of Dekadans.co, explains that a research on the occasions when internet was shut down in Turkey shows that most of the times the shutdowns are linked to terrorist attacks, but also occurred when ISIS was publishing videos of the execution of Turkish soldiers, political events such as the coup attempt or, in some cases, for unknown reasons. But the censorship in Turkey goes beyond throttling internet. According to the figures shown by Mr. Sözeri, 115,805 website have been blocked in Turkey since 2008, with a record of 42,236 in 2015.
Efe Kerem Sözeri insists that throttling internet has become a common and structured practice by the government: this allows for instance, in the example made by Sözeri, the Chamber of Pharmacists in Turkey to ask all pharmacies to obtain a permanent Internet Protocol (IP) address in order to be able to continue providing medicines to the population in case of disruption of the internet.
How to overcome this situation and keep doing the job of a journalist? Sözeri reports the story of a colleague. After the coup attempt, the government commanded the detention of several Kurdish mayors. When the demonstrations against the arrests started in the streets, internet got shut down in the area of the protests. But the phones were still working. One journalist decided to drive for few kilometers to a zone where there was access to internet. She got in contact by phone with her colleagues (who was still in the protest area), and from there she tweeted what was happening at the protests. This shows how challenging is to report on certain stories in Turkey.
And if shutting down the internet was not enough, another major issue in Turkey make the picture gloomy for the press freedom: i.e. online harassment. Gulsin Harman denounces that many journalists who dare to confront the official version of any major event, such as terrorist attacks, receive all sort of threats on social media soon after the internet is restored. According to Harman, this policy results in a very a polarised society, where even the right to express your opinion is in danger.