NYTimes.com: Never Mind the Ban, Turkish Leader Stars on YouTube

Never Mind the Ban, Turkish Leader Stars on YouTube – The Lede Blog – NYTimes.com

February 2, 2009, 11:56 am
Never Mind the Ban, Turkish Leader Stars on YouTube
By Robert Mackey

And he may ask himself, Well, how did I get here? Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey, a country that bans YouTube, stares into a Webcam for YouTube.

Updated | 2:03 p.m. After The Lede’s post last Friday about the Turkish prime minister’s dramatic exit from the panel discussion on Gaza at the World Economc Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a comment posted by a reader using the name Todd S. pointed out that, officially at least, there would be no way for residents of Turkey to legally see the video clip of the event that was burning up YouTube, since access to the site is blocked in Turkey.

Given that, it seems a bit strange that another very popular video clip from Davos, the one embedded above, was actually recorded for YouTube by none other than Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s prime minister.

Last Thursday, on the same day the Gaza panel video hit YouTube, Turkey’s semiofficial Anatolia news agency reported:

In a webcam message to be posted on the video-sharing Internet site YouTube, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed hope to establish peace in the Middle East.

Soon afterward, the Turkish Web site World Bulletin added the headline: ‘Turkish P.M. Erdogan Appears on Banned YouTube’ and reported that ‘Turks are still unable to reach the website.’

As Jeffrey Rosen explained in The New York Times Magazine in November, YouTube first ran into trouble with the Turkish law against ‘insulting Turkishness’ in 2007:

A Turkish judge had ordered the nation’s telecom providers to block access to the site in response to videos that insulted the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which is a crime under Turkish law.

This, in turn, prompted an internal debate among lawyers for Google, which owns YouTube, about how far the company should go to respect the laws of individual countries when they seemed to violate the ideals of free speech that a video-sharing service has to hold dear. As Mr. Rosen reported, the company’s deputy general counsel, Nicole Wong, came up with a solution that, for a while, restored access to YouTube from Turkey:

Google, by using a technique called I.P. blocking, would prevent access to videos that clearly violated Turkish law, but only in Turkey. For a time, her solution seemed to satisfy the Turkish judges, who restored YouTube access. But last June, as part of a campaign against threats to symbols of Turkish secularism, a Turkish prosecutor made a sweeping demand: that Google block access to the offending videos throughout the world, to protect the rights and sensitivities of Turks living outside the country. Google refused, arguing that one nation’s government shouldn’t be able to set the limits of speech for Internet users worldwide. Unmoved, the Turkish government today continues to block access to YouTube in Turkey.

It is clear, though, that Mr. Erdogan, whose exit from Davos has now been viewed nearly a quarter of a million times on the World Economic Forum’s YouTube channel since last Thursday, isn’t taking his country’s laws on the matter entirely seriously.

To start with, there is the video above, Mr. Erdogan’s contribution to a YouTube project called The Davos Debates, in which more than 130 participants at the forum used YouTube to address the world. This message from Mr. Erdogan, which also concerns Gaza, has already been viewed more than 300,000 times in the last four days.

While it may not catch up with the Chinese movie star Jet Li, whose contribution to the project has been viewed about twice as many times, Mr. Erdogan’s star turn is currently in second place this year among most-watched Davos Debates videos, crushing those submitted by Kofi Annan (70,407 views), Melinda Gates (681 views) and the British Conservative leader David Cameron (292 views).

It would be interesting to know just how many of those views are actually taking place on computer screens inside Turkey, since it seems evident that many Turks have found ways to circumvent the ban. A friend of The Lede in Turkey confirms that it can be done ‘relatively easily’; Erkan Saka, a Turkish academic, recently explained on his blog how to go about it:

I have been using Ktunnel or similar sites to access Youtube. A few days ago, we replaced a systems file — I do not how to describe it in proper technical terms — and now I can directly access YouTube! Until the next phase of web censorship, I guess …

Mr. Erkan also pointed to indications that a much more prominent Turk is also unhindered by the ban — Mr. Erdogan himself. In January, Thomas Seibert wrote in The National, an Abu Dhabi newspaper:

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. …

Mr. Erdogan told reporters accompanying him on an official visit to India in November they should ‘get on YouTube’. … When a reporter remarked that access to YouTube is blocked in Turkey, Mr. Erdogan replied: ‘I get in, you can do so as well.’

Mr. Seibert reported that ‘the ban is very unpopular and widely ignored’ in Turkey, and added that another member of Mr. Erdogan’s ruling party, President Abdullah Gul, had recently said on television that ‘I do not want to see Turkey among those countries in the world that ban YouTube.’

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 ninth most popular in Turkey, and the television news channel CNN-Turk estimated last year that about 1.5 million access it every day.

Update: A reader named Simon makes a fair point in a comment below:

Like in any democratic country, the one should be a clear distinction between the judicial system and executive authority in Turkey. Those two are separate and executive branch of the Government has little (almost none) influence over judicial one. Hence, while your article recognizes the fact that YouTube was blocked by a court decision, its headline makes mockery of Prime Minister.

It is true that many nations have a similar separation between the legislature and the judiciary, but buried inside this conflict in Turkey is, as Deborah Sontag pointed out in a profile of Mr. Erdogan in The New York Times Magazine in 2003, the very vexed question of the separation of mosque and state in a country founded as a secular republic.

So one interesting wrinkle in this difference of opinion on a free speech issue between Turkey’s legislature and its judiciary is that Mr. Erdogan, as the leader of an Islamist-leaning political party that was nearly banned for not being secular enough, has often been an advocate of allowing religious Turks to freely express their beliefs in ways that have been ruled illegal by Turkish courts, which are controlled by Turkey’s secular elite.

As Sabrina Tavernise reported from Istanbul for The Times last year, when Mr. Erdogan’s government acted to lift a ban on women wearing head scarves in universities,

Here, the country’s most observant citizens have been its most active democrats, while its staunchly secular old guard — represented by the military and the judiciary — has acted by coup and court order.

Later in 2008, Turkey’s highest court reversed Mr. Erdogan’s move and declared the change in the law unconstitutional.

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