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Turkey's Press Freedom Crisis

Sidebar: Online Censors Sharpen Tactics

By Danny O’Brien

As Deniz Ergürel and his Media Association colleagues prepared for a meeting with President Abdullah Gül in June 2011, they searched for a damning example of how illogical Turkey’s Internet censorship had become. They didn’t have to look far. In an attempt to enforce a sitewide ban on Google’s YouTube, Turkey’s Internet service providers had engineered a blockade against all Google services—including the mapping application that would have provided them with directions to the presidential residence, Çankaya Köşkü.

Gül, an Internet enthusiast with 1.8 million Twitter followers, got the message, and the block on Google was soon lifted. But YouTube has been banned in its entirety in Turkey, on and off, since 2007 as a result of a small number of offending videos. YouTube videos seen as disparaging Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, prompted a popular backlash and led to court actions blocking the entire site. An Internet law passed at the height of the crackdown codified Turkey’s ad hoc filtering and permitted whole websites to be blocked at the ISP level. Other international sites, including Metacafe, Myspace, and Livestream, have been targeted as well.

The international attention paid to Turkey’s Internet censorship has largely come from these, the government’s broadest strokes. But the most blatant examples of Turkish censorship have hidden a growing and more pernicious filtering of domestic news sources, including oppositionist and pro-Kurdish media. This filtering, local experts say, is unlawful even under the country’s expansive Internet censorship regulations and runs contrary to international press freedom standards. Most tech-savvy Turkish users have learned how to bypass the clumsy blocking of popular news and social sites, but they may not even be aware of the local journalism that has been effectively removed from their view.

Turkey’s website filtering is governed by Law 5651, which was enacted in May 2007 and defines what can be filtered online. A set of eight “catalog crimes” identifies what may be censored: child pornography, obscenity, suicide, gambling, drugs, prostitution, dangerous goods, and material perceived as disparaging Atatürk. Both the Telecommunications Directorate, the government’s Internet regulator, and private individuals can sue to shut or block sites when there is “sufficient suspicion” such offenses are being committed.

Within two years, more than 2,600 sites were being blocked by Turkish ISPs under Law 5651. The last official figures showed that 80 percent of these blocks came via direct order of the Telecommunications Directorate, which means there is no public or judicial oversight. The government has declined to publish new statistics since May 2009, although The Washington Post estimated that about 8,000 websites were being blocked at the end of 2011.

Not all of these blocks seem to follow the letter of the law. Since Law 5651 was introduced, local news sites covering Kurdish issues, such as Özgür Gündem and Keditör, have been blocked within Turkey. The people behind these journals have faced criminal charges, including “propaganda for an illegal organization” and “encouragement to armed action.” But Turkey’s Law 5651 contains no Internet-blocking provision for those offenses. The Turkish government can use many instruments to limit these organizations’ work on the basis of their support for banned political movements, but requiring ISPs to bar access to their websites is not one of them.

Yet that has not prevented the courts from blocking news media with a tenacity that matches their pursuit of the Atatürk videos. In October 2011, Ankara’s 11th Heavy Penal Court banned access to the website of the Fırat News Agency, a site the government says is linked to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. This followed months of cat-and-mouse between authorities and Fırat as the outlet repeatedly changed its Web address (from firatnews.com to firatnews.nu, firatnews.eu, and then firatnews.ws) in an attempt to dodge court orders that it be blocked. The last version was banned for “pornographic content,” a reason that may fit under the Internet law’s prohibitions, but is hardly applicable to Fırat’s news coverage. Fırat was given no reason for the other blocking efforts.

“These blocking orders have no legal basis under Law 5651,” said Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Istanbul Bilgi University. Authorities typically wield anti-terrorism laws to imprison and harass staff members of pro-Kurdish and other news sites. “However,” Akdeniz said, “the anti-terrorism laws do not provide for blocking measures, and the terrorist propaganda-related crimes are not included within the scope of Law No. 5651.”


The disappearance of these relatively small and controversial sites has not attracted wide attention, but that does not mean Turkish consumers are happy with the country’s Internet restrictions. “We’re a technologically sophisticated nation,” said Ergürel of the Media Association. His press freedom group has concentrated on economic arguments to persuade the Turkish government to loosen its grip on the Net. “Sixty-five million Turks have mobiles; 35 million of us are Facebook users; 16 percent of Turkish Net users are on Twitter. It’s just not possible to keep things secret, as was done before.”

In fact, blocking YouTube apparently taught a generation of Turks how to circumvent government censorship through proxies or other means. YouTube may have been banned for nearly three years, but it remained one of the 10 most-popular websites in Turkey. “I haven’t heard many people say that they have problems accessing anything,” said Zeynep Tüfekçi, a Turkish sociologist who has written extensively on the global culture of the Internet. The headline-grabbing censorship has also ended up harming Turkey’s image abroad. “It’s quite embarrassing for anyone doing business with the world,” Tüfekçi said, “which is why the government is sometimes motivated to drop” its blocks.

The unwanted attention also offers impetus to the subtler form of control now being pursued by authorities. Despite widespread protests, the government adopted regulations in November 2011 requiring Internet service providers to make state-supported censorware available to all consumers. Such blocking software lacks even the limited protections specified in Law 5651; there is no public list of “catalog crimes,” for example. Instead, the government may add individual URLs to the filter without appearing before a judge. Consumer use of the censorware is voluntary for now; the administration backed away from its original plan to make the use mandatory. But even in its current form, the regulations show a government interested in censoring websites in a more targeted and less visible way.

Such URL-based blocking could also be extended to the national blocks imposed at the ISP level, a development that concerns observers like Akdeniz. Authorities using such an approach could, for example, ban individual Facebook pages, while leaving the rest of the site available. Turkey’s Internet censorship would cease to be an embarrassment or impediment to the majority of its users, while still effectively silencing unpopular or minority news coverage domestically. “With URL-based blocking, we would not even know what sort of content has been subjected to government censorship,” Akdeniz said. “The system would lack transparency and it would be near to impossible to challenge the decisions.”

Over the years, Turkey’s blatant and over-reaching Internet censorship has drawn rebuke at home and abroad. But as authorities shift their emphasis, the danger lies not in the government’s broad brushes but in its fine strokes.

Danny O’Brien is Internet advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

(Photo by Reuters)


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