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Turkey is fighting for a free internet

Protesters face tear gas as they take to the streets over a harsh online censorship bill

The tear gas canisters, water cannons and crowds are back out in Turkey. Over the past week, protests have erupted in the country after laws were announced by the Turkish government that aim to censor parts of the internet. The news that websites deemed "incendiary" could be made unavailable in Turkey have spawned protests around the country, and Istanbul’s infamous Gezi Park has once again become a beacon for protesters, as those opposed to the bill also gather in other key cities around the country.

The crowds began gathering last Tuesday, when Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan announced that the government would restrict access to certain sites under a bill that allows webpages to be blocked within hours without a court action. It also requires Internet providers to store all data on web users’ activities for two years and for these to be made available to authorities. Many organisations and countries called on the Turkish President, Abdullah Gül, to veto the bill, but he announced his approval via Twitter (and lost around 18,000 followers in two hours). #unfollowAbdullahGul quickly trended on Twitter.

According to the government, these measures will “protect privacy and defend democracy”. Others see the bill as a means of curtailing opposition. “It is not just about censorship or control of content, but they are introducing certain mechanisms that I call an Orwellian nightmare,” says Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.

Alexandra de Cramer, a Turkish journalist and commentator says that “the most violent and least reported protests” took place in the capital city of Ankara, where she witnessed “flocks of people on the streets”, and that “citizens of Eskişehir (a city located on the northwest of Turkey) are reading books on the steps of the city’s main square as a sign of protest”.

In Istanbul’s Gezi Square, the site made famous by protests in 2013, hundreds of protesters filled the streets waving flags, chanting slogans such as "Everywhere Taksim, Everywhere Resistance!". "Tayyip Erdogan, don't pull the Internet plug" was scrawled across one banner.

Violence erupted as police deployed tear gas and water canon on groups in an effort to disperse the increasingly large crowds forming in and around city centres (see Vine below). The clashes have only served to enrage the crowds, which have stayed relatively calm until now. 

“The median age of Turkey’s 70 million populations is 29,” says de Cramer, “a young bunch who have grown up with the fruits of technology. 70 percent of the individuals aged between 25 and 34 use the internet.”

Turkey has over 30 million Facebook users and 11 million active Twitter users, with 47 percent of the population logging onto the internet. The country has been under immense EU scrutiny for its strict censorship laws, and the protests demonstrate a skittish and defensive government stance on the free flow of information across the country's internet. This paranoia has been seen in many other sections of the media: Prime Minister Erdogan has repeatedly accused outsiders of being behind the Gezi Park protests, which left six people dead and 8,000 injured; a Turkish BBC reporter was openly accused of being a foreign spy and throughout many social media platforms there are endless rumours about “deep states within deep states” – alleged to be a group of influential anti-democratic coalitions within the Turkish political system.

On late Monday evening, the main opposition group Republican People's Party (CHP) said "the Turkish government has lost its legitimacy" and called on the Prime Minister to resign immediately after the leak of a tape that recorded Erdogan discussing how to hide corruption money. Pro-government media reacted by claiming that prosecutors loyal to the opposition were "hacking thousands of phones in order to destabilise the government".

Mr Erdogan has been openly critical of the internet, describing Twitter as a "scourge" and condemning social media as "the worst menace to society". Websites like Twitter, Facebook and Google have come under threat from court official-led shutdowns. In January 2014, Soundcloud is reported to have been banned after audio files of government officials’ secret meetings were leaked to the site. 

Much of the confusion over the details of the protests has come from conflicting news reports from the Turkish media which has been hampered by bias, says de Cramer. “Some reported thousands in Eskişehir, whereas other publications wrote that there were only 300 protesters. Keep in mind that over 50 journalists were fired from their jobs because they reported on the Gezi Park protests.”

As the method of choice for anti-government groups looking to organise, enliven and publicise protests all over the world, the Turkish government is no doubt well aware of the value of social media. Wikileaks-style operators like Haramzadeler, who actively uses YouTube and Twitter, have been integral in leaking documents that detail widespread government and media corruption. 

“Before the corruption scandal in December 2013, I would have said that the impact of Gezi Park had sizzled down and there would be no change,” says de Cramer. “Now, I would say people are more conscious about their votes.” 

“People are more concerned and politically charged than before,” she says. “This only calls for a change, for new chapters to be created.” Now, Turkey wants the truth.