Microsoft in 2016 refused to share data with the Turkish government for access to an email account and the IP information of a journalist critical of the regime who was forced to live in exile, documents obtained by Nordic Monitor have revealed. The journalist’s account was later hacked by a group believed to be working for the Turkish government’s intelligence agency.
Tuncay Opçin, a veteran investigative reporter who faced dozens of defamation charges for allegedly insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had been investigated by Turkish prosecutors since 2014. Most of the charges against him involve alleged insults of Erdoğan in comments and articles he wrote on Internet websites. Prosecutors also charged him in several cases under abusive anti-terrorism legislation with coup plotting as part the government’s crackdown on critical, opposition and independent journalists. As of today, 235 journalists remain in Turkish prisons, mostly on terrorism charges, and many more have faced criminal investigations, trials and convictions on dubious charges and flimsy evidence. He is one of 152 journalists living in exile who are wanted for arrest by the Turkish government.
The Erdoğan government started to weigh in on cases against Opçin in 2014, but the real heat came a year later with several complaints filed by Erdoğan for defamation and libel. Having consolidated his grip on the judiciary with control of key judicial council the HSYK (now renamed the HSK), which decides on promotions, assignments and disciplinary actions for judges and prosecutors, the Erdoğan government has started to abuse the criminal justice system to crack down on critics. Opçin had to leave the country on March 28, 2015 to avoid jail time on fabricated charges. But he continued to write and speak out from the United States.
Following the filing of a new complaint on July 3, 2015 by Erdoğan attorney Ahmet Özel, who claimed the journalist insulted his client in a tweet, Turkish prosecutor Umut Tepe, notorious for conducting criminal investigations into journalists, launched an investigation on July 7, 2015 under case file No. 2015/86554. He ordered the police to investigate the journalist’s communications.
In response to the prosecutor’s request, Mustafa Aksu, the security department head at the cybercrime unit, wrote a nine-page report detailing Opçin’s activities as a journalist, from his Twitter handle and Hotmail account to the news website where he was writing. Interestingly enough, the report also showed that cyber unit employees tried to hack into his email account using the security code provided tohis phone number by Microsoft via text message.They failed to do so.
Opçin was already facing another defamation charge, again an alleged insult of President Erdoğan, following a complaint filed by Erdoğan on June 12, 2015. With the fresh complaint, his case file was merged with the new one under case file No. 2015/78613. The purported criminal evidence was a simple tweet posted on June 15, 2015 by the journalist, who said, “The renovation of Taksim Square could not be done because the crazy guy in the palace did not give up on the Gezi protests.” He was referring to anti-government protests in the summer of 2013 where residents rallied against a government project in Istanbul’s historic Taksim district that would have destroyed one of the few remaining green spaces in the mega city. The small environmental demonstration morphed into a major anti-government protest across Turkey.
The prosecutor claimed the term “crazy” constituted aggravated insult against the president, went beyond tolerable criticism and must be punished with prison time. He asked investigators to gather information on Opçin, which was seen as a vindictive campaign to punish legitimate criticism. Police chief Aksu wrote back to the prosecutor’s office in July, telling them that the information about the journalist’s email account should be obtained from Microsoft Corporation A.Ş., a Turkish affiliate of Microsoft. He later sent a letter on September 2, 2015 to the Microsoft office in Istanbul, seeking contact and identity information about Opçin.
On April 14, 2016 the attorneys of Microsoft’s Turkish office responded to the police, saying the company declined to provide the IP address and other information about Opçin because he lives outside of Turkey. According to filed and notarized papers, Turkish lawyers were representing Benjamin Owen Orndorff, the assistant general counsel for Microsoft Corporation.
Tepe, who appears to have been frustrated by failing to catch Opçin, wrote to the police on May 10, 2016, asking why their investigation into the journalist had failed to make any substantial progress. He even threatened to file criminal charges against investigators in the cybercrime unit unless they came up with something that would satisfy him within 10 days. However, the investigation went nowhere with Microsoft unwilling to cooperate, and frankly there was nothing to be found about Opçin other than his investigative work over the years and the network of contacts he had made as part of his journalistic activities.
On July 11, 2016 prosecutor Tepe found a face-saving measure to get himself out of the picture and avoid the wrath of Erdoğan by referring the investigation to another prosecutor on the Asian side of Istanbul because Opçin’s residential address in Turkey was not located on the European side of the city and therefore Tepe had no jurisdiction. Perhaps he knew that from the start but did not want to exercise that option, hoping that he would be able to deliver what Erdoğan’s lawyer asked him to do.
But there was another scandal recorded in the referral document. A handwritten note by deputy prosecutor Hüseyin Gümüş, dated July 25, 2016, showed that he instructed the new prosecutor to investigate Opçin carefully and suggested the journalist might have been involved in a failed coup, when he in fact had left Turkey long before the attempt. Gümüş handpicked prosecutor Ramazan Öksüz to investigate the journalist. The document lays bare of how the judicial system works under the political directives of the Erdoğan government and how defamation charges were quickly converted into more serious criminal offenses as part of a campaign of intimidation against journalists.
After failing to obtain information about the Opçin’s email account from Microsoft, the Erdoğan government this time appears to have resorted to illegal hacking into his account by contracting the job to Ayyıldız Tim, a Turkish nationalist hacker group that is believed to be operating with Turkish intelligence agency MIT. The group publicly declares its support for MIT and its chief Hakan Fidan on its Facebook account. The group has hacked a number of websites in the United States, Israel and other countries and has seized social media accounts of Erdoğan critics.
Opçin’s email and social media accounts were hacked on July 14, 2016, and some of his private communications were shared publicly by the hacker group. Speaking to Nordic Monitor, Opçin said the hacking was traced to a location in Turkey’s western province of Izmir. He said he had continued to use Turkish mobile carrier Turkcell for some time after he moved to the United States and that his account’s security verification was being done through this carrier. He said he tried to get his account back but that the security code that is supposed to be transmitted to his registered phone did not come from Microsoft. despite repeated attempts. Perhaps the code came in but was intercepted or the registered phone was replaced with a burner by the hacker group.
According to his recollection, Topçin’s Twitter account was locked on July 13, 2016 at 21.41 hours US Central Time due to unusual activity detected, followed by hacking into his Hotmail account. He had been unable to access his accounts including email for 15 days. He eventually managed to get his accounts back but sustained damage to his reputation as a journalist as hackers had shared messages pretending that they were written by the journalist.
Today, the criminal charge of defamation due to an alleged insult of Erdoğan, which carries a few years of jail time, is the least of his worries. He also faces terrorism, coup plotting and espionage charges, which could result in several life sentences if he ever returns to Turkey. These are the usual charges the Erdoğan government levels against critical journalists, and the only evidence the government has to back up these allegations are published articles, messages on social media and commentaries made on TV debate programs. Turkish government news agency Anadolu even published a chilling Wild West-style wanted poster for him, calling him a terrorist who lives in Houston and implying must be captured dead or alive. He has been harassed and tracked by government people even in the US.
It was not only Microsoft that came under pressure by the Erdoğan government to divulge private information about critics. According to Twitter’s latest government transparency report covering the period between January and June 2018, the Turkish government sought information for 765 accounts, although Twitter declined to share any information. In the same period, 508 court orders and 8,484 other legal decisions were conveyed from Turkey to Twitter for removal requests. Twitter says it has complied with only with 18 percent of them. Considering court orders for censorship requests worldwide numbered 628, Turkey accounted for 81 percent of all global requests to remove content from Twitter, demonstrating the extent of the politicization of the Turkish judiciary..
Over the past few years, Turkey’s government under Erdoğan has cracked down on free speech and attempted to restrict Internet and social media usage. Turkey has led the world in Twitter censorship ever since the first half of 2014, immediately after corruption investigations made public in December 2013 that incriminated Erdoğan and his family members. In March of that year the government temporarily banned Twitter and YouTube as its then-prime minister and current President Erdoğan battled scandals from corruption to illegal arms shipment to jihadists in Syria. Wikipedia has also been shut down in Turkey since April 2017.
The unlawful gathering of private information by clandestine methods has been a hallmark of the Erdoğan government in recent years, with Turkish intelligence using any and every method to intimidate regime critics, opponents and dissidents. By doing so, the government has in fact not only been infringing on fundamental rights enshrined in the Turkish constitution but also breaking dozens of laws in foreign countries and violating Turkey’s commitments under the international treaties to which it is a party.