Internet censorship law extends Turkish government’s reach over journalism, culture

The introduction of new regulations that assigns Turkey’s censorship board to monitor and regulate internet broadcasts raised serious concerns about yet another intrusion on freedom of expression in the country this week.

While the latest regulations reflect a current atmosphere of concern around cultural works deemed obscene, they are also the latest step in an unrelenting drive by Turkey’s government to increase its control over the internet.

In the Turkey of 2014, a very different country to the one today, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was struggling with corruption scandals that hit headlines in December 2013 and were kept alive by a series of shady phone conversations and other incriminating evidence regularly leaked on social media and news sites.

The leaks were quickly attributed to the Gülen religious movement, which had entered into a power struggle with the AKP after years of close cooperation. That struggle is widely believed to have ultimately resulted in the July 2016 failed coup attempt, an event that has redefined the country’s politics and brought unparalleled control to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Back in 2014, the ruling party’s dominance was by no means a sure thing. Nationwide protests the previous year had rocked the AKP to its core, the corruption probe had implicated four ministers, who were forced to resign, and the leaks appeared to reveal not only that Erdoğan was keeping inordinate amounts of hard cash at his family home, but that his son Bilal was not bright enough to dispose of it without incriminating his father over the telephone.

The ruling party came out swinging, blaming the leaks and corruption probe on the Gülenists’ “parallel state”, and convincingly won the local elections in March.

Yet that episode, and the central role social media played in the protests in 2013, had convinced the government of the need to take firmer charge of the internet. When an omnibus bill passed in 2014 laid the framework for extensive government controls over the internet, activists called it the beginning of the end for internet freedom in Turkey.

The bill updated regulations set down in 2007 in an internet law that had already followed years of intermittent crackdowns on internet freedom. YouTube had been banned for extended periods, the personal website of evolutionary biologist was banned at the request of cult leader Adnan Oktar, Kurdish sites had also faced frequent bans.

But the 2014 bill allows administrations to block access to pages and sites in hours and without a court hearing.

The number of blocked sites skyrocketed, as the general atmosphere in Turkey became increasingly constricted. The Turkish Freedom of Expression Association (İFÖD) counted nearly 250,000 websites blocked in 2018.

The new legislation will extend similar controls over sites that broadcast over the internet, requiring them to obtain a licence from Turkey’s censoring body, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), which will also demand that sites without the proper authorisation to broadcast are blocked.

This is bound to impact Turkey’s press, which already faces extreme restrictions in print and on television. The interrogation of journalists at two independent news sites this week over news stories and social media posts from four or five years ago demonstrates the kind of pressures that have become routine for critical outlets.

Turkish journalists had found a relatively free environment on the online TV news platform Medyascope and other web-only outlets. International broadcasters including the BBC and Deutsche Welle have also been collaborating on joint online broadcasting through YouTube.

These must now apply to RTÜK for a licence to broadcast, and face being blocked in Turkey if the government decides their reports warrants those licences being withdrawn.

The impact on journalism was not the main focus of discussion on the new legislation in Turkey, but it is most likely a significant point. Successive governments have consistently tightened their controls over internet-based media with new regulations, earning it a status of “Not Free” on Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net index.

Having famously placed an outright access ban on Twitter during the periods of leaks, the Turkish government graduated to targeting specific content on the site, making it the leading third-party applicant of takedown requests to the social media platform with 466 of the 513 total requests in the second half of 2017. The new regulation simply grants the government another means to police online content.

But the focus in Turkey has been on the prospect of censorship the law brings to on-demand internet streaming services like Netflix.

This has a lot to do with the timing of the regulation’s implementation, which came shortly after Islamist daily Karar columnist Akif Beki set his sights on Netflix, accusing it of broadcasting series that promoted homosexuality.

In a later column, Beki denied any intention to encourage censorship of the streaming site, pointing out that the regulations had been approved by parliament last year, long before the uproar caused by his piece.

Yet the connection had already been made. İsmail Kılıçarslan, a columnist for the Islamist pro-Erdoğan daily Yeni Şafak, defended the law, which he said had if anything come late.

The law was necessary, he said, to protect Turks from the “razor-sharp samurai sword” of indecent shows on-demand television.

This understanding of RTÜK’s role will pose a second very real danger for Turks who value independent media.

Internet-based on-demand sites like BluTV and Puhu TV had given Turks an alternative, and they have provided a platform for several ground-breaking series.

Turkey’s television screens, on the other hand, are heavily censored. If similar restrictions are enforced on streaming channels, it will cut an important artistic platform for Turkish filmmakers.

Moreover, the boundaries of censorship are heavily politicised. Violence in nationalistic television series is not likely to be cut. The furore around homosexual relationships on Netflix gives an idea of what will be.

It is important to note, finally, that influential figures in the government have declared their opposition to what they call Turkey’s insufficiently native and national cultural output.

Fahrettin Altun, Erdoğan’s communications director who is now rarely seen apart from the president, tweeted his disgust last year, shortly before he was appointed, at the selection of books by Turkish opposition figures featured in Turkish bookshops.

“We need to cast off the inferiority complex and be self-confident. Just as we have seen normalisation and democratisation in the political realm, so too should it be in the cultural”, Altun said then.

For a government that sees its country’s cultural realm as a battleground, the new law could prove to be a decisive advance.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.