Since 2009, the 'Freedom on the Net' report, annually published by the US-based Freedom House, has indicated that while 20 countries worldwide witnessed improvements in internet freedoms last year, 29 countries, including Turkey, experienced a decline.
Since 2019, when I authored the Turkey section of the report, we have been witnessing not only a decrease in internet freedoms but, regrettably, a broader erosion of rights and freedoms in Turkey. This year, which saw the worst situation yet regarding internet freedoms, also underscores that Turkey is the third-fastest shrinking country over the past decade.
This year's 'Freedom on the Net' report, titled 'The Repressive Power of Artificial Intelligence,' highlights an ongoing decline in freedom worldwide, and Turkey stands out as one of the leading countries in this trend. Over the last decade, Myanmar has experienced a 30-point decline, Russia a 19-point decline, and Turkey, alongside Uganda and Venezuela, a 15-point decline each. These statistics position them as the countries with the most rapidly shrinking spaces for freedom.
Key highlights from the past year encompass the enactment of the Disinformation Law by Parliament and its subsequent implementation, which led to the imprisonment of journalists and their convictions. Among the most noteworthy developments were the unlawful mass surveillance efforts by the Information and Communication Technologies Authority, the disruption of communication channels after the devastating earthquakes in February, and the curtailment of access to social media following both the earthquake and the terrorist attack in Istanbul in 2022.
The report also emphasized that one of the significant factors affecting users' internet access is new subscriptions, which have slowed down due to high inflation. Additionally, the theft of connection cables has become increasingly prevalent across the country each year.
Alongside the emerging developments of the past year, several recurring practices have persisted this year. These include instances where many users face physical violence, insults, investigations, and legal proceedings as a consequence of their expressions. Gender-related expressions continue to be restricted through oppressive measures, and independent news outlets are being incorporated into the 'safe internet package,' thereby impeding their accessibility to the wider public.
Despite prison sentences and arrests related to digital media publishing, the sole positive development noted in the report is that no one received a long-term imprisonment sentence last year.
According to the report, Turkey is ranked with a score of 30, placing it just below Thailand (39), Azerbaijan (37), Rwanda (37), and Kazakhstan (34), and slightly above Venezuela (29), Bahrain (28), and Egypt (28). Alongside Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, Turkey is one of the only countries to receive a score of 30. Moreover, when the Eurasian region is assessed as a separate entity, Turkey is notably the sole non-free country among the countries monitored on the European continent.
The fact that opposition parties have not adequately addressed the issue during the legislative processes governing the digital sphere in recent years, failed to initiate discussions on this topic, and the limited coverage of experts who raised critical concerns in independent media have all contributed to the current state of affairs. We hope that the newly elected Parliament will be more proactive over the next five years in areas such as safeguarding individuals' data privacy, curbing mass surveillance and profiling, countering oppressive political and state surveillance of citizens, and upholding a free and open internet. Furthermore, we anticipate increased awareness-raising publications and commentaries in independent media concerning digital rights and freedoms.
In conclusion, we also hope that reports like the Freedom on the Net will emphasize trends over scores, and that Turkey can shift its trajectory from being a non-free country to becoming a free country.
To access the full report: https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2023/repressive-power-artificial-intelligence
* Gürkan Özturan
1 Keser Altıntaş [GK], B. No: 2023/18536, 25/7/2023
2 Ümmühan Kaplan/Türkiye, B. No: 24240/07, 20/3/2012
3 Nevriye Kuruç [GK], B. No: 2021/58970, 5/7/2022
5 Burmych ve diğerleri/Ukrayna ([BD] B. No: 46852/13, 12/10/2017.