Turkey: Erdogan Moves to Tighten Grip On Judiciary, Internet

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A proposal by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party to tighten its control on the judiciary branch of government by giving the government a greater hand in the appointment of judges and prosecutors triggered a brawl in the Turkish parliament during a debate held yesterday.  

Punches were thrown, flying kicks were delivered, and water bottles, document folders and even an iPad's were used as missiles during a fight that erupted when a member of a judicial association came to the parliament to argue that the proposed changes were unconstitutional.  

"If I am being kicked at here as a representative of the judiciary, all prosecutors and judges will be trampled on when this law passes," said Ömer Faruk Emina?ao?lu, head of the professional association. 

"These regulations concerning the independence and impartiality of judges … will be in contravention of the constitution," said Ahmet Hamsici, deputy chairman of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), in a 66-page report. "It is clear that this situation represents a contravention of the principle of judicial independence (and) the separation of powers," said the report.

The move is viewed is viewed as just one of a series of government actions taken by Islamist Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and his AKP party to prevent further damage to its reputation incurred during the summer protests and currently being played out in the enormous corruption scandal at high levels of the Erdogan government.

Following a ruling by the Criminal Court of Peace, the Turkish government has recently blocked the use of Vimeo, a U.S.-based video-sharing website.

This move was made on the heels of yet another government proposal to censor the use of the internet by the AKP party, which recently introduced an amendment to Turkey’s law on cybercrime that would allow the government to block websites and social media and create profile internet users.

The latest amendment gives authority to the ministry of family and social policy, as well as the head of the telecommunications directorate, to block websites without having to obtain a court order.

“The government is making an effort to silence the internet and social media, just as it did with the media following the [recent] corruption operation,” said Emrehan Hal?c?, deputy chairman of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP).

Both moves were viewed as a means through which the government can prevent protestors as well as journalists, from promoting anti-government views. Vimeo was a site used extensively by anti-government protestors last summer to share footage of police brutality during the demonstrations in over Gezi Park that grew to a nationwide protest against the Islamization of Turkey and the encroachment of the government into the private lives of Turkish citizens.

The proposed amendment would allow the government to monitor and record the browsing history of internet users for two years at a time, including searches for key words and use of social media.

 “In this way, infrastructure for the countrywide profiling of citizens will be put into place,” Hal?c? said at a press conference in Parliament.

In addition to allowing for entire sites to be blocked within four hours after a decision is made, the legislation also allows for key words to be blocked, along with internet sites that use these words.

The bill also allows the government to block specific IP addresses and web URLs. “That is, the government will be able to easily ban a video that it does not like on YouTube,” said Halici.    

The move is seen as a way to censor dissent in the upcoming March elections — the first since the summer’s protests and the current corruption crisis — which are being viewed as a litmus test for the Erdogan government.  “The government is probably afraid that footage related to [current] corruption [scandal] and other issues will be published,” Halici noted.

According to Gunal Kursun, president of the Human Rights Agenda Association and a law professor at Cukurova University, a law that gives censorship power to the head of the telecommunications directorate or the minister of communications would be unconstitutional since neither authority is part of the judicial branch of the government.

Kursu noted that the judicial branch – through the courts – have already closed down close to 4,ooo websites.

Kursun also commented that the requirement by the law for internet service providers to monitor internet users and inform authorities also violates the constitution, “because this also stands for a [kind of] profiling.”

The bill, however, has already passed a subcommittee of Parliament's Planning and Budget Committee.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org