The TV and press coverage were shocking, Turkish police force through steel gates with bolt-cutters, frightened demonstrators cower under a barrage of tear gas and water cannons. A wounded women staggers away from the crowd helped by onlooking journalists. However this wasn’t the breaking of a siege or closing down some extensive criminal enterprise, but merely the Turkish Government closing down a newspaper which had dared to voice it’s opposition.
This is now how Turkey deals with dissent, free speech is a term subject to the approval of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government.
Turkey has long been treading down this path, it has fallen steadily down the league table of Press Freedom and now sits among the likes of Russia and Iraq where dissent is simply not allowed among the press. The newspaper is called Zaman and is the most popular daily newspaper in Turkey.
It is the latest in a long line of journalist casualties – hundreds are currently under prosecution, many independent broadcasters have been take off air or prosecuted on spurious charges. The common ‘excuse’ is in the ‘national interest’ or to fight terrorism however the reality is that if you disagree with the government then you’d better not say it aloud.
Turkey is supposedly a democracy but it’s actions are beginning to mirror something quite different. At the moment Turkish authorities are pursuing an aim of quicker integration into the European Union whilst simultaneously ignoring the building blocks of any democratic system. This is not restricted to the persecution of dissenting journalists, there is a lack of freedom in other areas too.
The internet has long been seen as a problem for the Turkish government and it has actively been trying to control access from within the country. It is considered almost essential to use a fast VPN to gain access to many legitimate news sites via a Turkish controlled ISP. This allows internet users to bypass IP blocks on specific sites which have been blacklisted by the Turkish Government , the list was established some years ago but has been growing exponentially over the last few years as dissent in the country grows. If Turkey is admitted to the European Union in exchange for it’s help in the immigration crisis it would ironically be the first member where you need to buy VPN services in order to allow unfettered access to the internet, just like you needed to do in Syria and Afghanistan.
Wherever you go the internet is increasingly becoming filtered by a variety of individuals , groups or Governments. It’s often for political goals but commercial and religion are often equally to blame for the increasing censorship.
In Turkey for instance, which is primarily a secular Government – various legal challenges have been made and effectively caused internet sites to be censored. For example a book on Creationism was criticised heavily by a scientist called Richard Dawkins – this was enough to get his site blocked in Turkey. However Turkey’s internet access is increasinly becoming filtered in many other ways too.
Many Muslim countries heavily restrict access to social networking sites in order to restrict people’s ability to discuss and criticize religion. There are drivers from the powerful Evangelical groups within the USA to do something similar from there. Fortunately this hasn’t happened in the US yet but the internet may yet be crippled from another source – commercialism.
A specific act in the US based on protecting intellectual property threatens to allow huge control over what access you have through a US ISP. A link to a pirated DVD or film may be all it takes for a court to block an entire website from an entire country. This will put censorship and control on a whole new level.
Already a lot of sites are inaccessible from different countries, for instance you can’t watch the BBC Iplayer from anywhere outside the United Kingdom. In fact you need to connect through a UK proxy to be able to view it.
However just to add some balance to this discussion it should be pointed out that even non-religious people are looking to censor access to the internet. I noticed the other day an application called the ‘God Block’ which blocks access to all internet sites that have any sort of religious concept. This is supposed to protect children from potential brainwashing apparently although how making children ignorant about religions will help them in the long run – I’m not quite sure.
For many the phrase digital equality has very little meaning, but for others it’s an important concept. If you look at the news events for any given week you’ll normally find some examples of how are access to free communication over the internet is being curtailed somewhere and somehow. Take for instance Turkey, at the moment there is growing discontent with the Turkish Prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan primarily for allegations of corruption. His response has been typical not of a democratic republic but more of a dictatorship, at least as far as the digital world is concerned.
In Turkey as we speak, Twitter is banned and YouTube is being actively blocked, this is together with one of the biggest lists of blocked sites in the democratic world. A person accessing the internet in Turkey does not have the same access and rights as someone in the USA would. The justification given for blocking these sites, is very weak but in essence it comes down to one thing – these social networking sites are being used to spread the corruption allegations and the government don’t want people to talk.
There are of course much worse places than Turkey to access the web, in reality most of the blocks implemented there don’t work anyway. Just as people will circumvent all sorts of restrictions there are lots of ways to bypass the Turkish blocks, my sister relays her connection through a Canadian proxy server run by a friend of hers. Turkey is a relative well connected country and the citizens are mostly able to afford things like proxies and vpns to bypass even the best filtering attempts. If you try and access the net in China it’s a different story as it’s actually quite hard work bypassing some of the Chinese blocks (of which there are many!).
The trouble is that in China and restrictive regimes like Iran and North Korea, they have actually spent a lot of time an money in making sure people don’t have free access to the internet. Sure proxies and UK VPNs still work – like this iPAd VPN service, but with enough resources being put into tracking these methods you would have to keep changing. China for example have even been found to track and block TOR outlet nodes which is not an easy task in itself.
So this is the problem, the internet is arguably the greatest advance in communication since the telephone. Yet for many it’s still dictated and controlled by the people who run the country they are in. Most democratic governments have no need or inclination to block access to the internet and social networking sites but for many regimes it’s often a priority. An invention that should bring us closer together and make our rulers more accountable is often just another inequality that some people have to suffer.