Ahmet Alphan Sabancı is a Turkish digital activist who works on free expression, security and privacy. 

Ahmet began his life as an activist after Turkey first blocked YouTube. When the Internet Governance Forum came to Istanbul in 2014, he co-organized an ungovernance forum alongside it, something he considers one of his major achievements thus far. Today, most of his focus is on digital security—in 2018, he became one of the founders of NewsLabTurkey, a project that trains journalists in Turkey on technology and on building new outlets so that they can grow as journalists. He also writes about security, technology, privacy, and the future of media.

I met Ahmet on Twitter many years ago, but I’ve since had the pleasure of hanging out with him when he visits Berlin. He’s a cat lover and a gamer, and he’s quite proud of having translated EFF’s Surveillance Self-Defense guide into Turkish.

We talked about the importance of social media in a context where the government has significant control over traditional media; the use of “terrorism” as a means to silence opponents; but also about the ways in which creativity can sometimes thrive during times of repression. I found our discussion—which weaved from Ahmet’s personal experience to the political situation in Turkey seamlessly—fascinating, and I think our readers will too. 

York: What does free expression mean to you?

It’s a heavy question, but especially in a country like Turkey, free expression means a lot because you see how it affects people’s lives, how it affects how people read, write, or work every day. You see journalists talking about stuff they want to write but can’t because of problems they might face. On the other hand, you see many people who don’t want to talk about certain topics on the phone or on WhatsApp because they’re afraid. They sometimes even get paranoid because you can see how serious things can get. For example, when the economic crisis, the currency crisis started in early 2019, people got sued because they talked about economics on Twitter. The government basically took them to court saying “you are doing economic terrorism because you’re doing speculation, you’re saying bad stuff about our economy.” When people see stuff like that, they stop talking about almost everything that at any point can get them into trouble. As someone who basically makes a living out of writing and doing research, I have to be careful about how I’m doing my job. Although I think that everything is not that serious all the time, I always have that noise in the back of my head saying “Are you sure you want to write this?” So, it basically affects every aspect of my life and everybody’s lives, especially in a country where doing anything can get you labeled as a terrorist, because this is one of the most favorite words of our politicians.

York: Let’s talk a bit more about that. One of the things EFF worries about is how “terrorism” is used to silence certain voices. Can you tell me more about what that looks like in Turkey?

Well, the most recent example is Erdogan, the president of Turkey, criticizing the Nobel literature prize. The author was supporting the atrocities done in Bosnia and other Balkan countries. Erdogan basically said that they’re always giving the Nobel prize to terrorists, they even give it to terrorists in Turkey—according to his advisors, he was not talking about Orhan Pamuk, but everyone basically understood that he was talking about Pamuk, because around the time Pamuk received the literature prize, he was talking about the Armenian genocide. He was sued for defaming the Turkish nation, and he was attacked a lot and called a traitor, and stuff like that. Because of that, [Erdogan] decided to declare all the Nobel prize winners as terrorists.

Whenever the government doesn’t like something, it creates a connection to terrorism. It becomes something quite normal at some point. You can basically declare anyone a terrorist if you just don’t like them.

Because of that, it can be quite funny - there was a moment after the 2016 coup attempt, where people who didn’t like their father-in-law or co-worker were reporting them to the police as terrorist organization members. There was nothing, no proof, but just saying that sometimes is enough. There were many examples of that happening. It’s basically become [normalized]. Because the government and politicians do that, everyone thinks they can label someone as a terrorist and get away with it. [It allows you to] promote yourself as a nationalist and someone who loves their country. 

It makes doing anything, like writing or talking about anything quite hard. It’s easy to get subpoenaed to the court at any moment because there’s a chance someone will report you to the police. You know the term “Twitter snitching” when you talk about someone without mentioning their name? We have that with the Turkish police. We have an official Turkish police department account on Twitter, and there’s a group of random people who will mention that account under individual’s tweets, and because of that, many people have been called into the police department to give testimony. Calling someone a “terrorist” is actually at that level in Turkey at the moment.

York: That’s awful, I didn’t realize that was happening. Is there anything you would want people outside of Turkey to know about that they might not know already?

I think one thing that many people don’t know much about is how the current mainstream media environment is in Turkey. You might see that there are many different newspapers, channels, news outlets, still [existing] but because of the ownership changes, businessmen close to Erdogan own almost 90% of the mainstream media in Turkey. So when people outside try to read news on Turkey, they’re hearing from the government. There isn’t much independent news going on in Turkey.

At the same time, other startups are either going full-on political propaganda, or trying to do journalism but because of political pressure, they’re taking every step very carefully, so there are many things that go unreported or underreported, so I think many people outside of Turkey don’t know the fact that basically, all the things you can call media in Turkey right now are all owned by a couple of businessmen and they all want to make sure that Erdogan still loves them. So when [outsiders] Google, they’ll find the English versions of [these sites].

And then when they try to read their own country’s media, like the New York Times or the Washington Post, they find quite limited topics. Because of all of that, one of the things Turkey is facing right now is that what’s happening in the country is not being represented. Most people don’t know what’s happening in this country.

By the way, I’m not saying this in a bleak or dark way—there’s also a lot of cool stuff happening in Turkey too, but that also gets unreported because it’s not what the Turkish or international media is interested in. When it comes to Turkey, China, or Russia, the hot topics are the dark things.

York: You know, I was just talking with friends about how under the worst political systems, often the best music, fashion, art emerge. Tell me, what are some of the interesting forms of expression coming out of Turkey right now?

One thing I can say is that in the past couple of years, we have a booming indie music scene. There are bands doing quite good music, and though the lyrics aren’t directly political, they say a lot about this generation, how they’re feeling and thinking about the world around themselves. There are many major bands and a growing music scene trying to rekindle the culture around that. 

At the same time, although there isn’t a huge literature scene, people are still writing, meeting. And one political side of all that bleakness is that people who want to say something about what’s happening around themselves are getting more and more creative. Because of all that pressure and people not having the mainstream tools to reach other people, we’re seeing the first podcast boom in Turkey right now. There are journalists, artists, literature people all doing podcasts right now. They’re actually talking more bravely in the podcast shows they’re doing. Basically, because they don’t have newspapers or websites—because they know the government can censor that—they’ve moved toward doing podcasts, and right now, we have a bunch of different podcast shows from different political perspectives talking about politics.

And because of media ownership issues, people have gotten more adventurous. People are starting to get their news from newsletters, podcasts, YouTube channels. So actually, all that pressure, all that censorship going on in the mainstream media cultivated an entrepreneurial media in Turkey, most of it coming from young people. There’s a millennial media generation growing in Turkey right now.

York: Wow, I wouldn’t have known that. What about social media? How are social media companies, in collusion with the government or not, impacting freedom of expression?

Well, most of the time they’re doing what makes money for them. They’re using censorship methods in Turkey similar to geofencing. For example, when the Turkish government asks for an account to be removed on Twitter, Twitter just makes it invisible to people in Turkey. Because of that, most of the Turkish political diaspora is invisible on social media because of that policy. The Turkish media has found a smart way to make sure Twitter and Facebook and Google keep complying with them. They basically say “Keep complying with our requests or we’ll ban you.” This is a major issue for especially Facebook, because Turkish people are one of the most active groups on Facebook. They’re also a major contributor to the conversation on Twitter, and YouTube has already dealt with a lot of Turkish censorship so they just want to make sure they don’t have to deal with that stuff.

We see it in the transparency reports of the companies. Whenever the Turkish government asks for an account or a piece of content to be removed, the companies comply with it. Because of that, most people are trying to be really careful to make sure their accounts don’t get censored, since they’re living in Turkey, and if their tweets are invisible there, no one is going to see what they have to say.

York: I can see what you mean about self-censorship! Let’s change course for a moment. Could you tell me about a personal experience, or what got you into this work in the first place?

Well, I think when it comes to digital free expression, internet censorship, it started around when the Turkish government first censored YouTube. I was quite young at the time, and most of what I was doing on YouTube was watching silly videos. Then, out of nowhere, the whole platform was gone online. So I started to think about it. For most people in Turkey, it was probably their first experience with online censorship.

Because of my political upbringing—I grew up in a semi-political and left-leaning house—I already had some knowledge about how censorship and repression of free speech was a regular thing in Turkey. Basically, in the history of Turkey, there’s always been censorship, there’s always been pressure and silenced groups. When I started reading about the history, especially the recent history, I knew this was something normalized already. So when we first started to experience censorship online, because of my nerdiness and all that, I got involved as an activist. I was semi-political when I was young, but I wasn’t that much of an activist. But when things got digital, I thought “this is where I should start doing something.”

York: I like that...and I can understand that too. Here’s a question I ask everyone: Do you have a free speech hero?

Oh, that’s a heavy question.

York: That’s funny, everyone keeps saying that. I thought it was a light question!

There are many whistleblowers, for sure. Özgür Uçkan is one of my heroes for sure, he was one of the frontrunners in Turkey when it comes to digital rights, freedom of speech. He made sure that I knew what I was doing as an activist, he taught me a lot. If I’d never met with him or started working in the same NGO with him, I would probably not be the person that I was. I can name him as my personal hero because he taught me a lot and made sure that I did my best for digital rights. Yeah, I think Özgür Uçkan is probably my personal hero, and the hero of the Turkish internet, as he was the first person to fight for digital rights, for free speech, for privacy.

York: One last question: For you, what do you see as the link between your digital security work and free expression?

Well, since I’m working mostly with journalists, there’s an obvious link that should never be broken, because when it comes to the work journalists are doing, without having even basic security, they can face a lot of trouble at any moment.

Most of the time when I do workshops or trainings with journalists and we talk about what they learned and what they’re going to use, we talk about how feeling safe makes them more confident about continuing with journalism and writing what they want to write. Especially since journalism is done with computers and the internet, feeling that sense of safety also helps them to express themselves more freely. We also see a lot of examples where journalists make mistakes about security, the government or someone who wants to silence them uses that advantage. Journalists see that, and they want to make sure they’re safe and that they can keep doing what they are doing.

York: Thank you Ahmet, this has been incredibly interesting.