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Turkey tightens controls on Internet speech

The country's courts and governments have banned 850 websites this year, including YouTube and Blogger.

By Yigal SchleiferCorrespondent / October 30, 2008

Youtube defender: Turkish author and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk criticized Turkey's ban on YouTube and other websites while speaking Oct. 14 at the Frankfurt book fair.

Torsten Silz/AP

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Istanbul, Turkey

For pioneering Turkish blogger Erkan Saka, these are dark days. Last week, he found himself cut off from a group of blogs that he belongs to and from hundreds of other websites he regularly reads.

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A Turkish court had just banned Blogger, the popular blog-hosting site owned by Google, because of illegal material found on a few sites on its servers. It was just the latest among hundreds of sites banned by Turkey's courts and government this year, raising concerns about censorship in a country with an already troubling record on freedom of speech.

"I feel very helpless and frustrated. I am not allowed to use something very natural now. A basic means of communication is being prevented," says Mr. Saka, who teaches popular-culture studies at Istanbul's Bilgi University and operates the website erkansaka.net.

Although his site, hosted elsewhere, was not affected and the Blogger ban was provisionally lifted Tuesday, some 850 websites remain off limits. YouTube has been blocked since May, after clips mocking Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's founder, were posted there. And recently a court agreed to bans on the websites of Oxford evolutionist Richard Dawkins and one of Turkey's largest newspapers after an Islamic creationist group complained about them.

"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 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 Web content, has given the state broad powers. The newly created Telecommunications Directorate, a government office that monitors the Internet, is allowed to shut down sites without a court order. The agency has been behind 612 bans this year.

Critics of the Internet laws have been dismayed by the state's heavy-handed approach, which allows for entire sites 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," he adds. "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, of course, is not alone in blocking online content. Britain, for example, is active in obstructing child pornography sites, while Germany goes after racist online content.

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