TURKEY UNCENSORED
Elif Akgül on the Turkish “virtual patrol squads” going after Kurdish social media users

Already known as the biggest prison for journalists, Turkey is increasingly jailing social media users

24 Jan 2019
BY ELIF AKGüL
Social media apps on phone, Jason Howie/Flickr

Social media apps on phone, Jason Howie/Flickr

After the widespread anti-government Gezi Park protests in 2013, social media platforms became an alternative source of news as the conventional mainstream media lost its credibility due to its biased reporting. Thereafter, posts were increasingly muzzled by the government, something that intensified in the wake of the failed coup attempt in July 2016. This is a particular problem for Turkey’s Kurds who have taken to social media in the absence of Kurdish media, which has largely been shuttered.

According to BIA Media Monitoring Reports, 182 media outlets have been shut down since the coup attempt. The actual number of news sites, social media posts and online news reports that have been blocked is unknown.

Özcan Kılıç, a lawyer who mostly defends Kurdish journalists and media outlets warned that if there aren’t deferments of verdicts in the cases, there could be more than 7,000 social media users imprisoned in the country. He points out that journalists facing charges related to their social media activities have mostly been sharing links to their own news articles.

“Kurdish journalists mostly share their pieces on their own social media pages because pro-Kurdish TV channels, newspapers are shut down and access to the pro-Kurdish news outlets are banned. The only way to inform people is through their own social media pages, such as Twitter or Facebook,” says Kılıç. “There is a double standard against Kurdish journalists and news outlets. I had a client newspaper which was prosecuted for publishing a photo of Öcalan [one of the founders of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party] while he was smiling for ‘making terrorist propaganda by representing a terrorist organisation’s leader positively’. The judiciary approach is ‘If mass media did it, it is journalism, if Kurds did it, it is propaganda’.”

“When Redhack leaked the emails of Berat Albayrak [then-energy, now the economy minister and a son-in-law of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan] they started to focus on the social media posts,” Kılıç adds. “In the leaked files trial, it was the socialist, leftist and Kurdish journalists who were prosecuted and the only evidence was their news stories that they posted online.”

When the government woke up to social media as a free speech medium, it launched a virtual patrol squad of police officers under the Department of Cybercrime in several cities. According to General Directorate of Security Affairs, the virtual patrols are able to deal with offences falling within the scope of the Public Security Division, listed as online sexual harassment, threat, insult, pandering, inducing suicide, blackmail and obscenity.

Kılıç says that these virtual patrol squads “check all the corners of the internet and create digital reports on individuals’ social media profiles”.

Police reports on social media profiles are collected from open sources, therefore these reports cannot be used as evidence in the prosecutions. “Very few of the courts take these notice and asks for further evidence,” says Kılıç. “But some are. When they ask for authentication of the social media profile which was subjected to trial, prosecutors use even personal information of suspects’ family, children or spouse.”

Kılıç’s note refers to the case of Kurdish journalist Rawin Sterks, in which the prosecutor demanded he be charged with conducting propaganda for a terrorist organisation due to his Facebook post about a documentary he had made about Reşit Marinus, a Kurdish peshmerga, the military forces of the federal region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Sterk denied the charge against him. Istanbul’s 34th Heavy Penal Court didn’t accept the indictment saying that the preamble of “the ‘peshmerga’ title did not refer any PKK militants”. The prosecutor then submitted another indictment, which restated the information in the first, but also added a police report which included some photographs and posts of Sterk’s family. The court then accepted the indictment.

Kılıç said that journalists who are targeted with charges often go public but non-journalists don’t because they fear for the impact on their families. “Regardless if they are educated or not, Kurdish people have an expression problem,” he says. “The Kurdish media is shut down, they cannot gather and celebrate Newroz, they cannot protest. So they do the most convenient thing and post their views on social media.”

When Turkey invaded Afrin, a town in northern Syria, on 10 January 2018, the Ministry of Interior stated that 845 people taken into custody for their online posts about the military operation. Most of them were Kurdish.

“Even posting Selahattin Demirtaş’s [former leader of People’s Democratic Party which is pro-Kurdish and the third biggest party in Parliament. Demirtaş is in prison for more than two years] would be considered ‘terrorist propaganda’,” says Kılıç. “After Afrin operation, even religious, AKP electorate Kurdish people get detained for social media posts.”

He warns: “A bigger crackdown is approaching for the social media posts for the last 5 years. Especially towards the posts that related to the protests which sparked by the Islamic State’s attacks on Kobani in 2014.”

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