Internet Censorship in Turkey

AKP government has received much international praise for furthering Turkey’s democratic stand. Yet looking into the reality of internet censorship in Turkey reveals another fact altogether.

Turkish government has established one of the most controversial laws of the Internet age. In May 2007, the Turkish Parliament has passed Law 5651, entitled “Regulation of Publications on the Internet and Suppression of Crimes Committed by means of Such Publication” (a.k.a. The Internet Law). Since its implementation, nearly 16.000 websites have been banned by Turkish courts and authorities. Although catalogue crimes are clearly listed within the law, websites were subject to mass blocking orders well outside the defined scope.

The most controversial and prolonged Internet censorship involved the world’s largest video sharing website, YouTube. YouTube remained inaccessible for Turkish audiences for over 2.5 years, from May 2008 to October 2010. The reason for blocking access was a local court ruling; in accordance with the Internet law, YouTube was broadcasting videos with inappropriate content, namely insulting and denigrating Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkey. In June 2010, another local court ruled for various Google applications to be blocked. Even the official website of the world renowned atheist Richard Dawkins has been deemed inaccessible under the internet Law.

The European Court of Human Rights’ (ECtHR) supervisory functions oblige all states to pay the utmost attention to the principles characterising a “democratic society”. Freedom of expression constitutes one of the most essential foundations of such a society, a basic condition for its progress and for the progress of every individual.  Hence the Internet censorship has now become a top agenda for human rights activists worldwide.

Yet in early 2011, Turkish Government expanded censorship through Turkey’s information and communications watchdog. BTK (Information and Communication Technologies Authority) sent an official correspondence to all Turkish web-hosting companies and Internet service providers a list of 138 keywords to be banned from Turkish domain names as part of the fight against pornography; most of the words “skirt” (etek), “sister-in-law” (baldiz) and “animals” (hayvan). The pedantic BTK also prepared a draft paper: “Principles and Procedures for the Safe Use of the Internet”. The draft sparked a spree of protests among masses, facing serious criticism. After much initial resistance, BTK was forced to change the draft and adopted a revised regulation, which enabled internet users to choose between certain access filters. The amendments eliminated some of the concerns, however, the government continued to face Internet censorship allegations, since BTK has denied revealing the nature of criteria adopted for Internet content filtering. The new state filtering system was adopted nationwide as of November 2011. Should the initially planned version took effect, Turkey would have been the pioneer nation for the first government-controlled and maintained mandatory content filtering system in Europe.

Turkey 2011 Progress Report of EU Commission reveals that, “open debate, including on issues perceived as sensitive, continued. However, in practice, freedom of expression is undermined by the high number of legal cases and investigations against journalists, writers, academics and human rights defenders, and undue pressure on the media, which raises serious concerns. The present legislation does not sufficiently guarantee freedom of expression in line with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and ECtHR case law, and permits restrictive interpretation by the judiciary. Frequent website bans are another cause for serious concern. Turkey’s legal and judicial practices, legislation, criminal procedures and political responses are obstacles to the free exchange of information and ideas.”

According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey provides the broadest legal measures for blocking access to websites by specifying eleven different content-related crimes. Turkey, along with Belarus, Croatia, Lithuania and Poland, requires filtering software to be used in academic institutions, libraries and Internet cafes. OSCE’s “Freedom of Expression on the Internet” report revealed that among 56 OSCE countries, Turkey is the only one to establish a state filtering system on the Internet.

OSCE has also reported that Turkey -with 57 journalists under arrest- ranked first within all countries, outnumbering Iran and China. Even though no online journalists have yet been convicted, In mid-March, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that there is increasing pressure on online journalists and specifically towards websites with political content, which classifies Turkey’s status by RSF as “under surveillance”.

It is yet to be seen if RSF will downgrade Turkey’s status to “Enemies of the Internet” in its upcoming reports alongside the worst violators of freedom of expression on the Net: China, North Korea, and Iran.

About Alper Çelikel

Social Democracy Foundation, Member of Board