Turkey shooting itself in the foot with new internet law

Turkey’s parliament passed a law this week giving the state media watchdog - the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) - censorship powers over content streamed or broadcast over the internet.  

Streaming is an increasingly popular way of watching TV series in Turkey, even shows currently broadcast on television. Despite U.S. companies’ best efforts, some Turkish websites manage to stream American TV series with Turkish subtitles soon after they are aired in the United States. Some subtitle translators even have their own fan following.

Native and amateur online streaming platforms were recently joined by subscription or ad-based services such as BluTV and PuhuTV. Netflix started serving the Turkish market when it expanded its international reach in January 2016.  

Besides entertainment, live streaming over the internet gave alternative media some breathing room where they could broadcast news and political commentary without much government interference. Medyascope is the prime example of such free media.

But the new bill and the regulations to follow will enable RTÜK to control these media streaming platforms the same way it controls radio and TV broadcasts. First, these platforms will need to get permission and licenses from RTÜK to be able to operate in Turkey. Secondly, RTÜK will have control over the content available for streaming.

According to the new law, RTÜK will be able to demand either the removal of content from a platform, or restriction of access to the platform. A criminal court would be required to make a decision within 24 hours, without a hearing. A criminal court ruling requires internet service providers to prevent user access to the site. Many sites, such as Wikipedia, were banned in Turkey through such criminal court verdicts.

Restrictions such as this new bill pose obvious infringements on the freedom of expression. Moreover, banning and censoring sites like Netflix or Wikipedia are both futile and examples of shooting yourself in the foot.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has expressed discontent at not being able to establish power in social and cultural arenas despite holding uninterrupted political power for more than 15 years. The education, media and entertainment sectors are critical in establishing such control, but it is difficult to achieve that goal by pushing school curricula, news or TV shows reflecting your ideology or values down people’s throats. Social and cultural power is real power if it is established through consent, not force.

Erdoğan and his government have increasingly tightened their grip on the media, including the entertainment industry. RTÜK and financial threats were major instruments in this process. While on one hand, onscreen kissing is fined by RTÜK, on the other government-funded shows promote violent nationalism and neo-Ottomanism, in line with the government’s worldview. But just as U.S. companies have failed to prevent their licensed content being streamed to internet users in Turkey, the Turkish government will not be able to effectively prevent its citizens from watching the domestic or foreign shows they want to watch.

More importantly, while trying to assert power over foreign companies like Netflix, YouTube, or Wikipedia in Turkey, Erdoğan and his government are missing huge opportunities to assert soft power globally.

The Turkish government has a very antagonistic view of platforms such as YouTube, Netflix and Wikipedia, it considers their content as a threat. However, they are also places to express your view and get the world to know and understand you.  

For example, Wikipedia’s recent campaign, “We miss Turkey”, emphasises learning from Turkish Wikipedia users and laments losing that opportunity because of the ban. By banning Wikipedia, not only are people in Turkey deprived of accessing knowledge on the site, but they are also prevented from expanding content in Turkish and content about Turkey in other languages. People around the globe are deprived from the opportunity to learn about Turkey from Turkish people.

In the last two decades, Turkish TV series have gained great popularity across the Middle East and in Latin America. When I first came to the United States and people learned where I was from, they brought up the film Midnight Express, which showed police torture in a Turkish prison. More recently, my Arab-American students ask me about Turkish series while swooning over actor Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ.

I am simply fascinated by American Netflix users’ comments about Turkish series shown on Netflix US. They have very positive views about the family relationships, Turkish culture, the Istanbul scenery, beautiful actors, and the storytelling they see in the Turkish series. They enjoy the shows despite having to read the subtitles and express joy at learning a few Turkish words. Those who watch Diriliş:Ertuğrul even feel glad to have the opportunity to learn about the Muslim view of the crusades. It is hard to achieve this effect with PR campaigns costing millions of dollars. This is soft power.

Viewer comments

The positive effect of Turkish TV series may not continue for long though. The Turkish government’s tightening grip on television production through content restrictions, makes them less creative and attractive. Moreover, Erdoğan’s aggressive foreign policy exerts hard power in a way that nullifies the effects of soft power.

MBC, a major pan-Arab broadcasting network, has recently banned airing Turkish TV series despite the possible financial losses. Restrictions on Netflix through this new bill may lead to Netflix pulling out of Turkey and stop providing Turkish content abroad.

Why is Turkey sacrificing long-term big gains in soft power for short-term small gains in tightening control over internet access domestically?  

As I have argued previously, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is in survival mode,. That means it does not have the vision and skills necessary to project soft power.

The AKP leadership and supporters do not feel secure about being able to stay in power. They are acting as “roving bandits” as scholar Mancur Olson theorised in his seminal work. Because their horizons are short, they focus on short-term gains, even if it is destructive for the country and its economy.

More acutely, though, AKP cadres lack the skills, capacity, vision or finesse to use these global platforms to their advantage. The AKP vision and perspective is parochial, resulting in trucks roaming the streets of Washington with Orwellian messages such as “Truth+Peace=Erdoğan” during his 2016 visit.

truth + peace = erdogan
Trucks carry messages of support for Erdogan during Washington visit

You can only go so far with this mindset; in order to influence global audiences, you need to be able to think and act globally. Turkey’s new internet law shows what a long way the AKP government is from achieving that goal.