EU officials raise concerns on Turkey’s strict new internet law

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EU officials have strongly criticised Turkey’s approval of a law to toughen controls on internet access in the latest sign of concern in Brussels about the direction the country – an EU aspirant – is taking.

The legislation, which was approved by the Turkish parliament on Wednesday and is awaiting signing by Abdullah Gul, Turkey’s president, would give the Turkish telecoms regulator powers to demand that internet service providers bar access to web pages within four hours if they are deemed to infringe privacy.

EU officials on Thursday said the law improperly restricted freedom of expression, pointing in particular to a requirement that internet service providers monitor online comments and that browser histories be retained for two years.

“This law is raising serious concerns here. The Turkish public deserves more information and more transparency, not more restrictions,” said Peter Stano, European Commission spokesman. “The law needs to be revised in line with European standards.”

Martin Schulz, president of the European parliament, said on Twitter that Turkish parliamentary approval of the bill was a “step back in an already suffocating environment for media freedom”.

The dispute comes in the wake of other tensions between Brussels and Ankara in recent weeks.

The European Commission has expressed concern about Turkey’s decision to move thousands of police officers in response to a corruption probe targeting people close to the government. Commission objections have also led Turkey – which recently restarted talks with Brussels over EU membership and relies on the bloc for financing, investment and export markets – to halt legislative plans to increase formal government control over judges and prosecutors. Ankara has nevertheless managed to remove key prosecutors from the probe.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, says the corruption investigation is being used to mount a vendetta by his political enemies, who he says amount to a “parallel state” within the bureaucracy.

The government adds that it is forging ahead with democratisation proposals that could see the release of scores of prisoners held in politically charged trials and bolster individual rights. Officials argue that the plans for the package, which it presented to parliament on Thursday, will boost freedoms by making it administratively more difficult for police or prosecutors to wiretap people or freeze their assets.

They say such powers have been abused by followers of Fethullah Gulen, a preacher and former government ally, within the police and prosecution service, as part of the corruption probe. Mr Gulen denies any link with the investigation.

The package would also increase the burden of proof required to hold people in pre-trial detention and limit such detention to a maximum of five years.

But critics accuse Mr Erdogan of growing authoritarianism.

Today’s Zaman, a newspaper that supports Mr Gulen, said on Thursday that Mahir Zeynalov, one of its journalists, was facing deportation from Turkey because of critical tweets about Mr Erdogan.

And last month the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an inter-governmental body to which Turkey belongs, condemned the internet law’s provisions for “the administration to request and collect data on all internet users from Turkey without judicial review” as “not compatible with OSCE commitments and international standards on freedom of expression”.

It added that the bill had “the potential to significantly impact free expression, investigative journalism, the protection of journalists’ sources, political discourse and access to information over the internet”.

With the corruption probe effectively stalled by the personnel changes, opposition party legislators say the internet bill is part of a government effort to prevent leaks from the probe from appearing on the internet, after a spate of recordings and documents emerged in recent weeks.

But Lutfi Elvan, Turkey’s transport and telecommunications minister, said such criticisms had nothing to do with reality. “We are not banning the internet,” he said. “This is not a censorship regulation; this is a regulation which brings us to developed countries’ standards and makes the existing law functional.”

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