Turkey: Ankara provokes controversy by censoring the internet
|Publication Date||7 November 2008|
|Cite as||EurasiaNet, Turkey: Ankara provokes controversy by censoring the internet, 7 November 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/491a9feec.html [accessed 22 May 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Yigal Schleifer: 11/07/08
The growing number of websites being banned by Turkey's courts and government is giving rise to concerns about Internet censorship. It is also stoking criticism of Ankara's already troubled record on freedom of speech.
Some 850 websites have already been blocked in the country this year, the most recent being Blogger, a popular blog-hosting site owned by Google, which was recently blocked by court order because of illegal material found on a few blogs. Access to the popular video sharing site YouTube has been blocked since May, after amateurish clips mocking Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's founder, were posted on the site. And recently a court allowed for the websites of Oxford evolutionist Richard Dawkins and one of Turkey's largest newspapers to be banned after an Islamic creationist group complained about them.
Although the block on Blogger was provisionally lifted after five days, it was another reminder of the Turkish state's growing role in controlling the Internet. "The current Turkish law on controlling Internet content, through its procedural and substantive deficiencies, is designed to censor and silence political speech," says a report set to be published next month by Cyber-Rights.Org, a British Internet civil liberties organization.
"Its impacts are wide, affecting not only freedom of speech but also the right to privacy and fair trial."
A law passed by the Turkish parliament last May, intended to prevent access to primarily pornographic and obscene web content, has given the state broad powers to control web usage. The newly created Telecommunications Directorate, a government office that monitors the Internet, is allowed to shut down websites without even a court order. The agency has been behind 612 of the 850 bans imposed this year.
Critics of Turkey's Internet laws have been dismayed by the state's heavy-handed approach, which allows for entire websites to be blocked because of a small number of offending items.
"It's like having a huge library and finding an error on a page in one book and closing down the entire library," says Mustafa Akgul, an Internet expert at Ankara's Bilkent University. "The government is deciding what is suitable for everyone to see on the Internet. That's a problem. We don't object to filters in school, libraries, or public places, but it's a problem to decide what is suitable for an entire population in a democracy."
Turkey is not alone in blocking content. Britain, for example, is active in blocking child pornography sites, while Germany blocks neo-Nazi and other racist content. But observers say Turkey has taken much more expansive and problematic approach, giving courts all over the country the power to shut down web access for the nation's 70 million people, without having to provide a thorough explanation, or with little public oversight.
"In terms of Internet censorship Turkey is for sure now one of the significant countries," says Clothilde Lecoz, head of the Internet freedom desk at the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. "We are very, very concerned about it."
There is also concern among officials in the European Union, which Turkey hopes to join. The EU has previously been critical of Turkey's record on freedom expression issues, particularly in regard to its prosecution of writers and journalists under article 301, a vague law that punishes those who insult the state and its institutions.
EU officials in Turkey say their concerns were featured in a November 5 report detailing the progress of Turkey's membership bid. "It is as very restrictive law and the implementation has been very problematic," says an EU official based in Ankara.
Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish author and Nobel laureate who was tried under article 301, recently used his opening speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair to criticize the YouTube ban in his country.
"YouTube, like many other domestic and international websites, has been blocked for residents of Turkey for political reasons," Pamuk said. "Those in whom the power of the state resides may take satisfaction from all these repressive measures, but we writers, publishers, artists feel differently, as do all other creators of Turkish culture and indeed everyone who takes an interest in it: oppression of this order does not reflect our ideas on the proper promotion of Turkish culture."
Turkish officials have admitted problems with the law's enactment, but defend its intent.
"The fight against elements that aim at degenerating societies and poisoning the youth and children is the fundamental task of each country. Every country has different regulations related to the Internet," Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim, who is also responsible for communications, recently said. "Our aim is not to ban web sites. Such measures will come to an end as soon as our courts are able to ban problematic content instead of entire web sites."
But critics like Yaman Akdeniz, a professor of law at the University of Leeds and director of Cyber-Rights.Org, believe Turkey's Internet law is too flawed to be salvaged, and would most likely not stand up to a legal challenge in the Strasbourg, France-based European Court of Human Rights, whose judgments are binding on Turkey.
"The current law should be abolished and the government should start from scratch when it comes to controlling the Internet," he said.
Bilkent's Akgul says without a new approach, Turkey may find itself increasingly left behind when it comes to utilizing the power of the Internet. "Turkish politicians haven't had any real vision on how to develop the Internet. There are more people working on censoring it than developing it," he said. "It's not only about becoming part of the European Union, about becoming a democracy: It's about joining the rest of the world."
Editor's Note: Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.