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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda
Freedom of expression is no laughing matter
Media Freedom in the Internet Age, Istanbul Bilgi University
Istanbul, 2 September 2014
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Free expression and a free media are protected at the most fundamental levels. By the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights. By the European Convention on Human Rights to which Turkey is signatory. And by the Turkish constitution too.
That's for a very good reason. Free expression is a herald of liberty, and an essential ingredient of democracy. Giving every citizen the right to share, express, and hear the views of others. The right to know how you are governed, the right to make a fair and open choice.
No wonder it is a freedom long protected and treasured, since well before the digital age.
Now we have the internet: a new platform for free expression. New ways to spread information. New ways to listen to the discourse of a people, in all its diversity and dynamism.
Now there don't have to be any more "information monopolies". Now we can put that power of information back into the hands of citizens.
This digital change has opened up new opportunities: to express, communicate, and learn from others.
Yet we all – citizens, companies, governments – we all have a decision how to react. And there are many different ways to deal with that change. Some want to embrace and adapt. Others see the change as something to resist, as a challenge to vested interests or to authority.
But one thing is clear: how we deal with it will determine our future.
So how will we react?
Will we innovate, adapt, and develop – or hope the change will go away?
Will we see the benefits – or recoil, repel, repress?
Will we seize new opportunities, or shut them down?
These are questions we are facing across the world; inside and outside the EU. And right here in Turkey, too.
Over the last decade, Turkey has enjoyed significant growth and development. And the internet is helping.
Just look at the opportunities offered online. From shopping to socialising, transport to television.
80% of the Turkish population goes online at least once a day – they are all enjoying those opportunities. So does every schoolchild whose classroom benefits from broadband and virtual learning. So does every web entrepreneur in a startup hub like Istanbul, digital innovators creating new ideas on this amazing platform, in almost any field you care to name.
The changes Internet has brought to Turkey mirror those brought across the globe. Including within the EU; but not just in the developed world: also in the poorest and most isolated places. Not just bringing entertainment: but education, empowerment, economic growth.
No person and no government should be seeking to turn their backs on those achievements, or shut down that opportunity.
Now I want to be direct. I make no apology for that – it's in my nature. And it is because I care about the future of Turkey, its development and its destiny. I want the people of Turkey to enjoy the freedom and prosperity they deserve. It is in the interests of the new Government and President to deliver that promise to their people.
A few months ago, the Turkish Government blocked access to Twitter and YouTube. Shutting down entire websites; silencing millions of voices.
That decision was disproportionate, illiberal, and incompatible with human rights. Fortunately, it was soon overturned by the Turkish Constitutional Court – as counter to free expression, and counter to the Constitution; access has now been restored.
But here are two points I want to make.
First: even before the decisions were overturned by the court, people in Turkey found ways round the ban. According to some reports, in fact, Twitter traffic in Turkey increased directly after.
The desire to communicate is human and universal; the technological options to enable it ever easier to find. Stopping people expressing themselves is futile: like telling women not to laugh in public. But I assure you, this is no laughing matter.
And for those outside Turkey, the whole episode drew international attention. Most of the world only became aware of the issue after Twitter was blocked.
More than ever it is clear that the Internet makes it much harder to censor and repress; Governments are increasingly powerless to prevent the free exchange of ideas.
Maybe those governments need to take the hint, and stop swimming against the tide.
And here's the second point I want to make. Twitter is not unique or special; nor is YouTube. The fact is, any tool can be used for good or ill. Ensuring media freedom calls for action at many different levels, on many different platforms – radio, television, print, online. It calls for checks and balances, institutions and mindsets. No one website can guarantee this. You need a whole atmosphere, not just one app.
And in that case of Twitter and YouTube, people spoke out. The vibrant voice of Turkish civil society and the Constitutional Court rose to challenge the ban. That is in itself a positive sign.
But that decision did not stand in isolation. It is part of a troubling trend for free speech and a free media in Turkey. That is a trend and a concern many in the international community have been highlighting for some time.
My colleagues Cathy Ashton and Štefan Füle were seriously concerned about the draft internet law, and they made this clear to the Turkish government.
The OSCE, observing the recent elections, found that a majority of monitored TV stations, including the public broadcaster, "displayed" a significant bias towards the ruling party.
And as our own progress report noted last year, the legal framework and its interpretation continues to hamper free expression, and a free media. Ownership structures and intimidating statements from the authorities combine to make self-censorship widespread. The independence of the broadcasting regulator, and its political composition, are still of concern.
What is more: according to the Committee to Protect Journalists – of the 211 journalists imprisoned across the world last year, 40 were in Turkey; making Turkey the world's worst offender. It seems there has been a significant drop in those numbers; that is a positive development. But it is important that trend continues; no journalist should be imprisoned for exercising their profession.
Turkey remains an important partner for us in many strategic areas. And we have been working closely with Turkey on freedom of expression, through tools like peer review; we stand ready to support with more, including through pre-accession funds.
Assessing human rights, including freedom of speech, is and will remain central to the Copenhagen criteria; to how countries are assessed towards EU membership. Indeed, the High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism suggested that those issues should play a prominent role in that assessment. That's a very sensible recommendation.
For me, the EU and European standards should stay the anchor of reform for Turkey.
But it's about more than EU membership.
Because these are not the values of one particular culture, the preferences of one particular continent. They are human values, universal values; they are the right of a people to be heard by their own government. When there are tens of millions of voices, values, views and values waiting to be heard, the job of the government is to listen to them, respect them and represent them: not shut them out. A debate that is inclusive, free, and open: improving democracy, strengthening a country.
I believe in that kind of inclusive debate. And indeed I am here in Istanbul for the Internet Governance Forum. A body that draws many different stakeholders and interest groups to discuss issues important to how the Internet is run. One of the key issues is that governance be transparent and accountable. And we cannot have that transparency and openness if media are censored, if the means of debating and expressing opinions are shut down.
But equally, all stakeholders must be able and willing to participate – even if some of the other parties have very different views. I want to strengthen and improve the IGF and similar forums. We cannot have that if certain stakeholders do not participate in meetings and do not contribute to debate. We have fought for civil society and other groups to have their full say, but then they must come to the table.
Let's remember the kind of world we live in. It's a world that is changing fast. That is not easy for anyone to deal with. How to respond to digital change is a challenge that every country has to consider and respond to.
Within the EU we have to confront those challenges every day: issues of media freedom regularly come up, and I am not afraid to speak out when they do.
And we also confront every day the question of what digital changes mean for fundamental rights, for the media sector, for every other economic sector besides. What digital opportunities offer for jobs, innovation, and profound social progress.
These questions are not going to go away. Nor is the importance of free expression.
So let's remind ourselves: what makes the Internet such a success? What makes it so diverse and innovative, a home of prosperity and freedom?
The answer is simple. It succeeds because it is open. Harm that openness, and you harm the entire platform – its potential, its purpose, its promise.
Actions that are illiberal, illegitimate and illegal damage Turkey's development, and do an injustice to its people.
The fact is: free speech on an open internet can support Turkey – and many other countries besides. Support their progress and support their people.
So it's time to embrace that. The fact is, if you aspire to development and democracy, you need to aspire to digital: and make the most of this open, innovative platform. Protect free speech, and a free media, across a plurality of channels.
Modern Turkey was founded on an ability to embrace change, creating a country adaptable and inclusive, positive and progressive. And today, Turkey remains an important strategic partner for the EU in many areas. Because I know that the Turkish nation and the Turkish government continues to share many of our values, for democracy and freedom.
We remain committed to those values. We remain committed to those reforms. And we remain absolutely committed to supporting Turkey along the way.