On 1 March 2023, ARTICLE 19 submitted an expert opinion in the legal case challenging the bandwidth throttling and mobile service providers’ (GSM) service outage following the massive earthquakes in Turkey in February 2023. In the expert opinion, we submit that the internet shutdowns and other forms of intentional disruption in access to the internet violate Turkey’s obligations under international human rights law as they constitute an unnecessary interference that cannot be considered proportionate and can never be justified in natural disaster situations. We also urge the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office to conduct a proper and speedy investigation into the circumstances that led to execution of the shutdown and ensure that those responsible are held to account.
On 6 February, Turkey was hit by two massive earthquakes, which resulted in irreparable destruction, tens of thousands of deaths and injuries in many provinces, districts and villages, especially in Kahramanmaraş, Malatya, Diyarbakır, Kilis, Şanlıurfa, Adıyaman, Hatay, Osmaniye and Adana. There are numerous reports that many people trapped under the rubble used their mobile phones and social media platforms to reach rescue teams. Moreover, those who survived reportedly used Twitter as one of the main platforms to call for emergency help, and rescue teams organised their operations using the information and locations shared on the platform.
On 8 February, it was reported that access to Twitter and TikTok platforms were restricted on several internet service providers, with limited access on others. Subsequently, they were unaccessible across Turkey for approximately 12 hours without the use of a virtual private network, or VPN. Although the reasons for the disruption is unclear, it has been alleged that the platforms became inaccessible on major Turkish mobile and internet providers as online criticism mounted regarding the government’s response to the disaster.
The timing of the interference was critical, given that human lives could have been saved with a timely response within the first 72 hours. It has been argued that disruptions have made it impossible for people to call for vital services and rescue teams, and therefore caused further serious damage to individuals and communities.
Veysel Ok, the co-director of the Media and Law Studies Association and a qualified lawyer, is currently bringing the legal action regarding the disruption and mobile service providers’ service outage, requesting the necessary investigation to be conducted and a public lawsuit to be filed against those responsible. The case is being brought against officials from both Turkey’s Information and Communications Agency (BTK) and and from mobile service providers (Turkcell, Vodafone, Türk Telekom). ARTICLE 19 is supporting the case through expert opinion, outlining that the interruption violated international and regional human rights standards, including those on the right to freedom of expression.
In the expert opinion, we also stress that it is exactly in situations such as natural disasters when internet shutdown and other forms of intentional disruption regarding access to the internet cannot be justified. There is no conceivable reason for which this interference could be considered proportionate.
Finally, ARTICLE 19 also joins Veysel Ok in his call to the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office to conduct a proper and speedy investigation into the circumstances that led to execution of the throttling and ensure that those responsible are held to account.