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Concern Is Growing In Turkey Over President Erdogan's Push To Restrict Social Media

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Turkey, concern is growing over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's latest push to control the media. It was social media reaction to a recent event in the Erdogan family that has him talking about new restrictions. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports media advocates warn a new law could come any day.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: In July, Erdogan told a gathering of ruling party officials that social media channels were out of control. He called it imperative that channels where, quote, "lies, slander and attacks on personal rights take place should be brought to order."

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PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) Such channels do not suit this nation. Therefore, we want to bring these subjects to our Parliament and tell them, we want such social media channels to be completely removed or controlled.

KENYON: Erdogan has a personal reason for wanting to rein in social media. In June, his son-in-law, Turkey's finance minister, had posted a tweet celebrating the birth of his fourth child, Erdogan's grandchild. The post was met with a wave of negative and insulting responses on social media. Erdogan called it social media terror.

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ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) When the legal regulation is completed, we will put into effect all kinds of methods, including access barriers and judicial and financial sanctions. Turkey is not a banana republic.

KENYON: Erdogan has already banned Twitter and YouTube, though they were later reinstated. With the Parliament returning to session, media advocates are worried about what kind of barriers Erdogan has in mind now.

Gurkan Ozturan, with the European Center for Press and Media Freedom, follows digital rights and liberties issues in Turkey.

GURKAN OZTURAN: We have been seeing that the government has been increasing its crackdown on the internet - and not only the internet, but all kinds of platforms that enabled the society to access to crucial information.

KENYON: Turkey already has a media law that it's used to block hundreds of thousands of items online. Ozturan says, to no one's surprise, the government calls to remove online content haven't targeted pro-government comments.

OZTURAN: It has always been the ones that are either critical of the government or if the content are revealing claims of corruption or misuse of power, as I stated before.

KENYON: The new move to control social media posts has drawn concern among some Turkish businesspeople as well. Ussal Sahbaz is a business consultant who's been following this issue. He says the government is keeping details of the new law confidential until a proposal is made public. But what he's hearing from sources in the ruling party suggest that this new crackdown may not apply simply to social media platforms but to individual users as well.

USSAL SAHBAZ: It is also possible that the responsibility may go beyond tweeting something, but also may include retweeting something, spreading false information without knowing whether it is false or not. This is more restrictive than last year's law, and it may also result in a lot of self-censorship on behalf of the users.

KENYON: He says self-censorship is already happening in Turkey and could get much worse. Some are concerned that repression of dissenting voices on social media will ramp up the head of the next presidential election. Sahbaz says, personally, he thinks if the government is going to regulate social media, political advertising is one area it should look at.

SAHBAZ: The political ads on social media - who is financing them, the transparency of whether it's an ad or it's not a sponsored content. These type of things are much more important than false news and all these type of, you know, regulations discussions that we are currently having.

KENYON: The government appears to be hearing the criticism. Erdogan's justice minister recently said the ruling party has no intention of restricting free expression, and the government won't stand for censorship. For now, all sides are waiting to see the details to learn in the coming weeks what exactly the government does have in mind when it comes to social media.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.