When my wife Diane and I arrived in Istanbul on May 12—the sixth stop on our multi-country adventure—we were under no illusion that Turkey was a democratic paradise. Still, the clampdown to take effect on August 22 was ominous. On that date, the religious conservative Justice and Democratic Party plans to require all Turkish computer users to choose among four Internet filters–family, children, domestic or standard–if they wish to gain online access.
The authorities also have given Internet service providers and website hosts a list of 138 keywords that are off-limits. Most seem arbitrary, if not absurd: yasak, which means forbidden, is forbidden. Also yasak are etek (skirt), baldiz (sister-in-law) and hayvan (animals). Less benign words on the list are free and pic, which minimize the appearance of photographs and most references to freedom that might displease the Muslim-dominated Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has become increasingly authoritarian since coming to power in 2003.
On May 15, we took a tram and funicular to Istanbul’s historic Taksim Square, site of a monument to modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kamel Ataturk, whose secular legacy the AKP works to undermine. Two ambulances stood by, as did more than a dozen policemen, some armed with automatic weapons. We assumed they were on guard because the square has long been a magnet for political protests, and also was the site of a suicide bombing last October, which the government linked to Kurdish dissidents, and which left more than thirty people wounded, half of them policemen.
But all was serene on this Sunday morning, as men (there were virtually no women) lazed on the benches or walked their dogs among the plots of flowers. We gave a rubbernecker shrug, left the scene, and took a long, leisurely stroll down the neighborhood’s car-free Istiklal Street.
By late afternoon, both the square and the popular shopping promenade had filled with demonstrators, many carrying placards and shouting, "The Internet is ours and will remain ours." Thousands more repeated the protest in some 30 other cities around the country, with an estimated one million weighing in online.
It doubtless did not escape the AKP’s notice that the large turnout was organized and coordinated over social networks like Facebook, a fact likely to harden Ankara’s determination to crack down on internet freedom. Already, security officials block some 7,000 websites, according to Reporters Without Borders (RWB), which has called on the government to jettison the keyword list and lift the August 22 filtering decree.
RWB reports that references to Ataturk, "the armed forces, the Turkish nation, minorities (especially the Kurds), or so-called ‘terrorist’ organizations" are key targets for online censorship. So is even suggesting that the Turks of the Ottoman Empire committed genocide in killing more than a million Armenians during and just after World War I.