From repressing digital content to repressing people
Turkey's strategy of repressing opposing voices in the aftermath of the failed coup of 15 July 2016 has transformed from surveilling perceived enemies and repressing specific digital content to arresting and silencing anyone who has been classified as a threat to Erdoğan's position of power. The ruling party's willingness and ability to rapidly produce lists of individuals and institutions deemed threatening to the country's political stability should not come as a surprise.
For the last decade the Turkish government has cultivated a far-reaching system of online censorship under the guise of protecting children, national security interests, and the integrity of the president. In 2014 the blocking of YouTube and Twitter were met by domestic and international outrage – and while those bans were lifted, social media companies operating in Turkey found themselves under steadily increasing pressure to abide by the ruling party's political interests. But despite President Erdoğan calling social media 'the worst menace to society' during the Gezi protests in 2013, Turkish authorities have taken advantage of the internet to surveil Turkish citizens as well as their own civil servants by tapping phones, tracking locations and collecting meta-data to get at the names and whereabouts of those opposing or voicing criticism of the president's increasingly authoritarian leadership. In March earlier this year the Turkish government pushed through a new data protection bill, essentially granting the Turkish Intelligence Services blanket authority to access personal information on anyone in Turkey without requiring a warrant or having to provide public accountability thereof. This new bill, together with an already highly intrusive surveillance system has allowed the Turkish government to gather watch lists of names, personal information and locations of individuals and groups the government perceives to be threatening. When earlier this year the Intelligence Services came across secret communication channels of followers of Fethullah Gülen, Turkish authorities were able to track thousands of names and identification numbers of individuals associated with the movement.
It is thus not surprising that it only took Turkey's government under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a few hours after the country witnessed the failed coup attempt in the night of the 15th of July to arrest thousands of soldiers allegedly involved in the attempt to overthrow the ruling party. By the following day, dismissals, arrests, and court orders against thousands of members of the country's judiciary had been issued. A few days later, Erdoğan declared a state of emergency, and the purge of suspected conspirators with the coup-plotters widened to include policemen, journalists, media personnel, academics, teachers and civil servants. Erdoğan has previously used (unconfirmed) threats of military coups to silence individuals he perceived as threats to his political power, but the coup attempt on July 15 has finally provided him with the public confirmation of an actual internal threat, calling it “a gift from Allah” which will allow for a nation-wide purge of those disloyal to the present government.
The Turkish government has a history of repressing media freedom, including recent crackdowns on newspapers and journalists for "insulting" president Erdoğan. Members of the media have quickly come to learn just how ruthless officials act in such instances: from threats and intimidation to detaining and jailing individuals, forces not loyal to president Erdoğan have been subject to physical repression for quite some time.
In the aftermath of this real threat to the government’s authority, the ruling party has moved to employ physical repression against much larger parts of the Turkish population, hereby drawing on material collected, in parts, through previous surveillance efforts. The actions of the Turkish government highlight the close interplay between digital censorship and physical human rights violations, as it has been witnessed in other contentious settings, such as Iran, Syria, or Bangladesh. Where governments show willingness and opportunity to digitally silence and surveil their citizens, they are also more likely to display heightened willingness to use widespread physical repression in times of political instability.