Turkish Experts: Maintain balance between freedoms and respect for values

Experts: Maintain balance between freedoms and respect for values

Zaman, 20.06.2008, ESRA MADEN

The key to ending unnecessary and frequent blocks on access to certain Internet sites in Turkey is a fine balance between individual freedoms and public values, participants in a workshop on Internet bans said yesterday.

“Web site content is a major discussion around the world,” said workshop participant and sponsor Füsun Sarp Nebil, the founder of turk.internet.com. She said the discussion was about defining the border between societal values and individual freedoms.

Popular video-sharing Web site YouTube had been banned by court order in Turkey for one-and-a-half months when it was lifted on Tuesday night — only to be reintroduced at 10 a.m. Wednesday morning through another court decision.

The Web site was banned yet again for hosting a video insulting Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. The bans on YouTube have been frequent in the past few months, sparking serious debate over a law that regulates Web site content and Internet publishing, which has been criticized for restricting freedom of expression. The frequent YouTube bans are a major embarrassment for Turkey internationally, as they place the country alongside China, Pakistan and Thailand, the only other countries to ban YouTube so far. By mid-April, 321 Web sites were banned under the Internet Publications Law and another 102 under other laws in Turkey.

A two-day workshop sponsored by Ankara Bar Association and turk.internet.com was held on June 18 and 19 to discuss online censorship in an attempt to produce possible solutions in Abant, in the northwestern province of Bolu. Internet experts, Web site owners, judges, prosecutors, representatives of higher courts, officials from Internet and communications-related state agencies, such as the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), as well as bureaucrats from the Justice and Transportation Ministries attended the workshop to discuss Turkey’s YouTube problem, which seems to be growing larger. Nebil cited as a major problem with existing Turkish legislation relevant to the topic that Web site owners were not given a chance to defend their Web site content. “We organized this workshop to create awareness. We are discussing a different system to impose blocks on Web sites. We are talking about what systems other countries use to monitor Internet content.”

She said the law was also very problematic in that its description of “obscenity” was ambiguous.

As a remedy, Web site owners attending the workshop suggested partial bans that would block only the illegal content and not the entire site.

Experts also suggested that the authority to ban access to Web sites be given to specialized courts only, to avoid arbitrariness in Web site ban rulings.

Officials explain reasons for bans

The major reason for most of these bans, Telecommunications Authority Internet Department head Osman Nihat Şen explained, were complaints filed by individual citizens. Under the law, the police must relay these complaints to prosecutors, who are in turn legally obliged to act on them and launch court processes. The courts, in turn, have to rule in accordance with the current Internet publishing laws, which criminalize ambiguously defined offenses, such as insulting Atatürk or encouraging suicide or gambling. In other words, most of the time, it is Turkish citizens who ban YouTube.

He also said that 10,103 complaints had been registered with the Telecommunications Authority as of June 16. One hundred seventy of these complaints caused a Web site to be blocked by court decision, and 314 more sites were blocked automatically after complaints were received, without resorting to a court. Warnings were issued to 22 Web sites, and inappropriate content was removed, Şen added. “We do not have the authority to block Web sites promoting the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK]. Even when there are complaints about this kind of content, we cannot remove them. There are also videos insulting the prime minister, Islam and the Turkish flag. Those videos cannot be interfered with, because the law does not say anything about those issues. Turkey behaves like an ostrich, sticking its head in the sand. We have to implement the law,” he said.

In a telephone interview with Today’s Zaman yesterday, attorney Özgür Eralp from the Ankara Bar Association said: “We have started an initiative in this organization to raise awareness of communications, Internet and the law. There are 60 participants from different professions, including lawyers, prosecutors, representatives of the Justice Ministry and the Transportation Ministry, under five working groups [on different topics] including ethics, techniques and laws. We are preparing a report on what we have done and discussed. The prosecutors causing the bans are also present at our workshops,” Eralp said.

“The meetings are proceeding in a positive atmosphere. The organization is particularly important in the gathering of different poles of the debate, parties that are both supportive and critical,” said turk.internet.com’s Nebil. Noting that it is not just Law No. 5651 that is under discussion at the meetings but that other laws restricting Internet freedom are being examined as well, Nebil added that they are planning to establish associations with the help of NGOs and the state to inform the public about use of the Internet. “The workshops also deal with the education of state authorities in technical issues,” Nerbil stated.

What does Turkey’s Internet regulation legislation say?

Law No. 5651 on Internet Publishing is the legal basis of Web site bans in the Turkish Constitution. The law’s Article 8 allows for blocking access to broadcasts for the following reasons: inciting violence, online sexual exploitation of children, encouraging drug use, obscenity, prostitution, enabling means to gambling and crimes stated in Law No. 5816 regarding insulting Atatürk. The Telecommunications Authority can block Web sites with a court decision or at its own initiative.