Turkey: Panopticon Prison of 80 Million People

Photo by Larry Farr on Unsplash

The Panopticon model, proposed by the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, is actually a mechanism of self-censorship. Prisoners in cells arranged in a ring with completely open fronts would have to control their own actions and not do anything wrong in order not to be punished, since they would not know when the guards in the watchtower standing like a lighthouse in the center of the ring were watching them and when they were not. Bentham described the model he developed as “a new model of the acquisition of power by a higher mind”. This prison model, which was put from theory to practice in Nazi Germany, has indeed yielded successful(!) results.

In the last few years, Turkey, my homeland, has turned into a panopticon prison of 80 million people. The e-government system, which was originally intended to digitize state institutions and enable citizens to perform many transactions via the internet (and smartphone applications) without physically going to public institutions (e.g. the civil registry office or the tax office), thus facilitating the lives of citizens and reducing the workload on public employees, has been working like a past-panopticon watchtower since its inception. Likewise, CİMER (Presidential Communication Center), whose main function is a kind of “communication line” for citizens to convey their various complaints, suggestions and wishes to the highest institution of the state, the Presidency (de facto the Head of State), has been functioning as a prosecutor’s office and a police station at the same time almost since its inception.

Citizens who engage in heated political debates on social media, especially before elections or in times of economic crisis, see nothing strange in taking screenshots of Facebook and Twitter posts with views they disagree with (or do not like) and complaining directly to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan via CİMER. Needless to say, all of these complaints are made by supporters of Erdoğan’s political Islamist AKP party and its ruling partners, the ultra-nationalist MHP. Those being complained about are, of course, those who oppose and speak out against the Erdoğan regime and the work of the AKP-MHP government. Unfortunately, Turkish social media users do not know how to engage in civilized debate with people whose views they disagree with, or to ignore statements and discourse that do not suit them.

Of course, in other countries around the world, too, there are those who complain about views and expressions with which they disagree. Especially Facebook and Twitter’s mechanisms, which function as “control centers”, are flooded with billions of reports from all over the world complaining about a post they don’t like in order to get it deleted. However, I doubt that any direct head of state takes these social media complaints seriously and initiates legal proceedings as a matter of duty. Except Turkey.

Yes, in Turkey, the Presidential Communication Center, which represents President Erdoğan himself, directly forwards such “complaints” to prosecutors and police departments. The prosecutors and police authorities then seriously and meticulously scrutinize these social media posts, immediately identify their owners and file lawsuits against them for “insulting the President”, “insulting Turkishness”, “insulting the State” or “inciting the people to revolt”, all of which violate freedom of expression and freedom of thought. And many (like me, the author of this article) are sentenced to years in prison.

It is worth reminding once again that Turkey has been ruled by a one-man dictatorship and a political Islam — ultra-nationalist regime for 20 years.

Apart from President Erdoğan’s own hotline, there are also police officers “patrolling” social media in Turkey. Yes, this may sound a bit strange. However, the name of this action, which is done as a legal practice by the Turkish Police Force itself, is indeed “virtual police patrol”. In other words, there are police officers whose job it is to patrol social media, and these police officers are “patrolling” Twitter and Facebook to identify social media posts that criticize President Erdoğan, the government and state institutions, and to launch investigations against the people who wrote them.

On the other hand, Erdoğan and his government, in order to make all this even easier and to put it on a legal footing, have recently passed a law called the “Censorship Law”. The law, officially called the “Law on Combating Information Pollution”, gives the government, judges, prosecutors and police forces the right to demand user information (metadata such as IP address) from any social media platform (e.g. Twitter or Facebook), even anonymously. If the social media platform in question fails to provide the Turkish authorities with the user’s IP address and other personal information, access to the platform from Turkey is restricted by the state and financial penalties are imposed, such as a ban on advertising. Most recently, in response to the growing protests on Twitter in the wake of the massive earthquakes in southeastern Turkey and northern Syria, which killed 350,000 people according to unofficial figures and left 3.5 million people living in the region, the Erdogan government decided to block access to Twitter in the country and for hours the social media platform could only be accessed using a VPN.

It is also easy to “report” an unpleasant social media post to the police on “virtual patrol” on social media outlets. A government supporter or a nationalist social media user who does not like a tweet they see can simply tag the Twitter accounts of the Turkish National Police under the tweet in question.

Of course, as I mentioned above, the number of these complaints can reach hundreds of thousands per day, especially during elections, periods of economic crisis, political crises or periods of social anger such as earthquake disasters, and the Turkish police and prosecutors do not have the capacity to keep up with all these complaints at the same time. However, the Panopticon Prison Model, which I mentioned at the beginning of this article, is embodied here. Dissidents on social media are forced to live in fear that every tweet or Facebook post can be reported to the police or prosecutors or even to the Dictator Erdoğan himself. (It should be noted here that the censorship law passed by the Erdoğan government increases the prison sentence of a social media user if he/she opens his/her account under a pseudonym rather than his/her real name and surname. In other words, anonymous characters cannot escape the radar of the Panopticon Watchtower). And one morning they learn the bitter truth when the police come to their door and take them to the police station or directly to the courthouse to make a statement.

Yes, as you can understand, Turkey is a Panopticon Prison of 80 million people, where intolerant paranoids fill the towers and dissidents are imprisoned in transparent cells.

Hoping for freedom.