Thomas Seibert, Foreign Correspondent
Last Updated: January 16. 2009 9:30AM UAE / January 16. 2009 5:30AM GMT
ISTANBUL // Two months ago, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, stunned the public by admitting that he has joined hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens in doing something that the country’s courts say is forbidden: watch clips on the internet video portal YouTube.
Commenting on a decision by the main secular opposition party to accept women in strict Islamic clothing into its ranks for the first time, Mr Erdogan told reporters accompanying him on an official visit to India in November they should ‘get on YouTube’.
The website had clips showing earlier opposition meetings in which women wearing Islamic dress had been criticised, he said. When a reporter remarked that access to YouTube is blocked in Turkey, Mr Erdogan replied: ‘I get in, you can do so as well.’
Access to YouTube in Turkey was blocked in May, following a decision of a court in Ankara that reacted to a clip allegedly insulting Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Comments like the one by Mr Erdogan show that the ban is very unpopular and widely ignored, but observers say the blockage is unlikely to be lifted as long as the law behind it is still on the books.
‘The law was a mistake and the implementation is flawed,’ said Ibrahim Sarioglu, general secretary of the All Internet Association, or TID, an internet lobby group that has several leading telecommunications companies among its members.
Mr Sarioglu said the law, officially known as the Law Concerning the Regulation of Internet Broadcasts and the Fight against Crimes Committed via these Broadcasts, which came into effect in late 2007, has ‘put Turkey on the list of countries that practise censorship’.
YouTube is not the only popular website that has been a victim of a ban in Turkey: WordPress, Geocities and the Turkish Google Groups were also hit with temporary bans in the past, triggering fears Turkey’s image abroad may be damaged.
‘I do not want to see Turkey among those countries in the world that ban YouTube,’ Abdullah Gul, the president, said in a recent television interview.
Mr Sarioglu said the internet law made it difficult to get rid of bans as courts in Turkey can without a hearing close down access to a website if the website or it content is deemed to cause offence.
To get access re-established, the owner of the website or a Turkish citizen who argues that the ban causes him harm can apply to the judiciary. In the case of YouTube, no one has filed a case yet to get access cleared, Mr Sarioglu said. ‘This is Turkey. People are afraid of the state.’
The TID has applied to the Danistay, the top administrative court in Turkey, to get the law revoked. The Danistay could also decide to ask the constitutional court to declare the law null and void, Mr Sarioglu said. But the legal battle will take time. It may take two years or even longer for the Danistay to reach a decision in the TID’s case.
The transport minister, Binali Yildirim, whose responsibilities include telecommunications, admitted last month the application of the law was causing trouble. ‘There are mistakes stemming from the interpretation of the law,’ Mr Yildirim said, referring to the frequent court decisions to ban websites. ‘Unfortunately, the YouTube matter has reached a point beyond the original aim’ of the ban. The minister said Turkish judges would become more knowledgeable in internet matters over time and would start handing down ‘proportionate’ sentences.
Mr Sarioglu said the aim of the religiously conservative government of Mr Erdogan was to stop pornography and strengthen the protection of minors, ‘but the law can be misused’. Last year, a Turkish newspaper estimated that access to more than 800 websites is blocked.
Reasons for orders to block websites vary. Some bans deal with websites connected to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a Kurdish rebel group that has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule since 1984. Last year, Adnan Oktar, a controversial Muslim author and creationist who writes under the name of Harun Yahya, successfully applied to a court in Istanbul to block access to the website of Richard Dawkins, the author of the global bestseller The God Delusion. According to news reports, Mr Oktar felt his personal rights had been violated by comments Mr Dawkins made about one of his books, the Atlas of Creation, by speaking about the ‘breathtaking inanity’ of the book’s contents.
Mr Erdogan’s comments, however, showed that many Turks have found ways to get around the bans. Following the prime minister’s advice to the reporters on board his plane to India, several Turkish media provided tips on how to beat the YouTube ban. The website is believed to be the 9th most popular in Turkey and the television news channel CNN-Turk estimated last year that about 1.5 million access it every day.