Turkey: Internet Shutdowns, an emerging threat to journalism

Journalism today depend heavily on the internet. But, what happens to journalism when authorities take control of the internet? At the Hotel Sangallo, a discussion on “Turkey: Internet Shutdowns, an emerging threat to journalism” was held by Alp Toker (founder of Turkey Blocks), Gulsin Harman (International Press Institute), Isik Mater (research director of Turkey Blocks), and Efe Kerem Sozeri (editor of Dekadans.co). Toker states that shutdowns of the internet are prominent across the globe. Between 2015 – 2016, the number of documented shutdowns jumped from 15 to 56.
Toker explains the definition of a shutdown, which includes total internet shutdowns (where users are completely in the dark), to denied access to social media, and slowing down internet connection for users, known as throttling. Sozeri confirms that when major incidents happen in Turkey, users experience a total shutdown of the internet, TV, and radio broadcasting for several hours. Afterwards, the Turkish government broadcast their own message to cover the news.
Toker states that without access to internet, journalists cannot research, disseminate, distribute, or produce news for the wider public. If there is a limitation on the internet by authorities, then facts cannot reach the public.
Sozeri explains a major shift in how the government carries out censorship before and after the military coup in 2016. Before the coup, the government slowly introduced implementations to block users from gaining full access of the internet. This was done by blocking web content, establishing a default web for the users, and imposing block requests on websites, which would shutdown the site within 4 hours. Usually, the government would go into total shutdown after a bombing incident within the country.
However, the government became addicted to these powerful tools. Sozeri points out that it all changed when the President Erdogan initiated the State of Emergency after the coup attempt. The government’s strategy diversified, which meant total shutdown were more common when sensitive subjects made news headlines. For example, the deposing of a major in a Kurdish majority city, or the assassination of the Russian ambassador. These shutdowns guaranteed a secure way for the government to control the message to the public.
However, Harman points out how all channels of information are closed for public access, making it difficult for journalist to carry out their work. As she put it, “it leaves [everyone] in total darkness.” Harman also argues that journalists are being harassed online and are considered ‘traitors’ by many netizens who support the regime. Death threats, smear campaigns, hacking of personal accounts would increasingly worsen when a journalist is merely doing his or her job.
Sozeri points out that the situation in Turkey caused the decline of critical journalism, however, an imminent problem lies ahead. If President Erdogan wins the upcoming referendum, the future of journalism in Turkey remains quite bleak.

By Irada Yeap