Turkish riot police used water cannon and teargas against up to 2000 demonstrators protesting on Saturday against new government controls of the Internet.
The laws were passed by the Turkish parliament this week and, once they are approved by the president, will allow authorities to block web pages within hours. The opposition has accused the government of orchestrating the measures in order to stifle a high-level corruption scandal.
The curbs have sparked alarm both in Turkey and internationally, with both the European Union and the USA, as well as human rights organisations, expressing concern.
Large numbers of police with body armour and shields, backed up by armoured water- cannon trucks, were deployed against the chanting, mostly young crowd around Istanbul's central Taksim Square.
"I pay my own Internet bill but it's the government that decides what sites I can look at," one demonstrator, Semih, told AFP. "They want to control what we do on the Internet. It's repression. But the young will not be repressed, we won't take it lying down."
Earlier on Saturday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vehemently rejected criticism of the new curbs. "These regulations do not impose any censorship at all on the Internet.... On the contrary, they make it safer and freer," Erdogan said.
He denied that authorities would now have access to Internet users' personal information. "Never. It is out of the question that people's private data will be recorded," he said.
The laws give the telecoms authority the power to order a webpage blocked without the need for a court order if the content is deemed to infringe privacy or is offensive. The changes come as Erdogan faces a major graft scandal that erupted in December, implicating his inner circle.
Government trying 'to silence critics'
Human Rights Watch said the restrictions raise concerns that a "defensive government is seeking to increase its power to silence critics and to arbitrarily limit politically damaging material online".
European Parliament chief Martin Schulz called them a "step back in an already suffocating environment for media freedom", and the USA also expressed misgivings.
Erdogan, who has been in power since 2003, has portrayed the investigation as a plot against him by people within the Turkish police and judiciary loyal to Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher living in the United States.
His government has sacked or moved to different jobs thousands of police and prosecutors ahead of important local elections on March 30 which could determine whether he runs for president in August.
"One of the few remaining liberties we have is the Internet and being able to communicate. This is what they want to constrain," said Burak, another young demonstrator in Istanbul. "They are really scared of social networks and the Internet."
Erdogan, who has been in power since 2003, is also seeking to push through legislation reforming the judiciary, which critics will say will increase government control.
There are also concerns about the freedom of the press. On Friday an Azeri journalist and blogger was deported from Turkey because of tweets criticising the government, according to his newspaper, Zaman, which is close to Gulen.
US-based rights group Freedom House said that over the past year "dozens of journalists have been fired because of government pressure, and government officials' threats against journalists have become common".
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-02-09