RWB holds news conference during IGF in Istanbul

At Reporters Without Borders’ invitation, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Turkey’s Alternative Informatics Association (ABD) and the Turkish Association of Journalists (TGC) participated in a news conference in Istanbul on 4 September about online censorship and surveillance in Turkey.

Reporters Without Borders news conference

From left to right: Sibel Güneş, TGC’s general secretary; Erol Önderoğlu of RWB, Andrew Gardner of Amnesty International and Johann Bihr of RWB

All the participating NGOs agreed with Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch that this week’s Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul was a unique opportunity to draw the international community’s attention to the situation in Turkey.

Turkey blocked Twitter and YouTube at the start of the year. Recent amendments to Law 5651 on the Internet allow the High Council for Telecommunications (TIB) to block almost any website for 48 hours before requesting a court’s approval, a deadline that is hard to respect because of the judicial system’s overload. And anyway, as RWB’s Johann Bihr said, “48 hours of blocking is 48 hours too many.”

HRW’s Cynthia Wong pointed out that the government also got parliament to pass a disturbing extension to the powers of Turkey’s main intelligence agency, the MIT. All state and private entities are now required to hand over any information that the MIT requests. Anyone refusing to comply faces the possibility of two to four years in prison.

Nonetheless, the alarming state of online censorship and surveillance was barely mentioned during the Istanbul IGF. As AI’s Andrew Gardner said, it was ironic that Turkey, one of the leading states in online censorship, was hosting an IGF.

During workshops attended by RWB, many panellists said Internet governance was a technical issue. This is not so. As Bihr pointed out, it is a political issue. What is at stake at the Istanbul IGF, and what its organizers do not seem to understand, is whether the Internet continues to be open and decentralized, or is transformed into many national networks under close government control.

Bihr said many international rulings and recommendations already exist, including European Court of Human Rights rulings and statements by the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, on access to online information (2011) and online surveillance (2013). Instead of more discussion, what is needed now is binding international regulations.