Turkey tightens controls on Internet speech

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

Torsten Silz/AP
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.

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.

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.

But Turkey has taken a much more expansive approach, giving courts the power to shut down Web access with little explanation or 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."

The European Union, which Turkey hopes to join, has previously been critical of Turkey's record on freedom of expression, 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.

Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish author and Nobel laureate who was tried under Article 301, used his opening speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair this month to criticize Turkey's YouTube ban.

"YouTube, like many other domestic and international websites, has been blocked for residents of Turkey for political reasons," Mr. 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."

EU officials in Turkey say their concerns will be expressed in an upcoming report detailing the progress of Turkey's membership bid, due to be released in November. "It is a very restrictive law and the implementation has been very problematic," says an EU official based in Ankara.

Turkish officials admit problems with the law, 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 websites. Such measures will come to an end as soon as our courts are able to ban problematic content instead of entire websites."

Critics like Yaman Akdeniz, a professor of law at the University of Leeds and director of Cyber-Rights.Org, say Turkey's Internet law would most likely not stand up to a legal challenge in Strasbourg, the French-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."

Professor Akgul says without a new approach, Turkey may find itself 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," he says. "There are more people working on censoring it than developing it."

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