People use computers at an internet cafe in Ankara
Umit Bektas  /  REUTERS
People use computers at an internet cafe in Ankara February 6, 2014. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
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updated 2/6/2014 9:09:09 AM ET 2014-02-06T14:09:09

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's parliament has approved internet controls enabling web pages to be blocked within hours in what the opposition decried as part of a government bid to stifle a corruption scandal with methods more suited to "times of coups".

Social media and video sharing sites have been awash with alleged recordings of ministers including Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and business allies presented as proof of wrongdoing. Reuters has been unable to verify their authenticity.

Under a bill passed late on Wednesday, telecommunications authorities can block access to material within four hours without a prior court order, tightening restrictions imposed in a widely criticized law adopted by the EU candidate in 2007.

"This is against the constitution. Bans like this exist in times of coups and have not been able to conceal any corruption," Umut Oran, a deputy from the main opposition CHP, told the general assembly.

Erdogan's critics say his response to the corruption scandal is further evidence of the authoritarian tendencies of a man long held up by the West as a potential model of democratic leadership in the Muslim world.

The turbulence has raised concerns about stability in the run-up to local and presidential elections this year, helping drive the already fragile lira to record lows.

The internet legislation, which still needs the approval of President Abdullah Gul, will allow the storage of individuals' browsing histories for up to two years.

"The Turkish public deserves more information and more transparency, not more restrictions," said a spokesman for EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele.

"It is increasing the authority of the telecommunications directorate and it limits judicial review."

The graft scandal erupted on December 17 with the arrest of businessmen close to Erdogan and three ministers' sons, and has grown into one of the biggest threats to his 11-year rule.

Erdogan has portrayed the scandal as an attempt by a U.S.-based cleric with influence in the police and judiciary to unseat him. The cleric, Fethullah Gulen, denies the accusation.

His government has responded by purging the police and judiciary, reassigning thousands of officers and dozens of prosecutors. It says Gulen's Hizmet movement is a challenge to legitimate, democratically elected government.

Erdogan has won three general elections since his AK Party was first voted to power in 2002. Local polls next month will be a test of whether his popularity has held up, or even grown, amid the graft scandal and power struggle with Hizmet.

The government says the internet reforms, sent to parliament before December 17 but broadened in recent weeks, are aimed at protecting individual privacy not gagging its critics.

"The latest regulations are not censorship and are not a ban," AK Party deputy Necdet Unuvar said in comments on his personal website. "They are regulations needed to protect the confidentiality of private life."

Separately, the AK Party presented a bill on Thursday which would tighten restrictions on wiretapping and the seizure of suspects' assets, which opposition critics also saw as part of efforts to thwart corruption investigations.

HIGHLY CENTRALIZED

Turkey already has strict Internet laws under which thousands of websites have been blocked, from news portals viewed as close to Kurdish militants to gay dating sites.

More than 40,000 sites are blocked, according to Turkey's engelliweb.com, which tracks access restrictions. Almost all internet traffic passes through the infrastructure of Turk Telekom, which is 32 percent state-owned and used to count new Interior Minister Efkan Ala among its board members.

Turk Telekom declined to comment on the new law.

The 2007 law prohibits insults to modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as well as encouragement to suicide, sexual abuse of children, the supply of illegal drugs, promotion of prostitution, and unauthorized gambling.

Access to video sharing site YouTube was blocked between 2008 and 2010 because it hosted content viewed as insulting Ataturk, who founded the modern secular republic in 1923.

Under the new law, decisions to remove material taken by the telecoms authority (TIB) will be subject to judicial review. A court will rule within 24 hours. TIB can appeal.

"This reform proposal ... gives the powers of the legislative, executive and judiciary completely to the TIB, which is turning into an intelligence agency," two professors from Istanbul's Bilgi University and Ankara University said in a report this week.

"From the perspective of fundamental rights and freedoms it indicates the start of a period of great darkness," professors Yaman Akdeniz and Kerem Altiparmak wrote.

Parliament, where Erdogan's AK Party has 319 of 550 seats, voted in favor of the articles but the overall reform package is expected to pass later on Thursday.

(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in Brussels, Georgina Prodhan in Vienna, Evren Ballim in Istanbul; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall)

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