Turkey – Access Blocked: A Disturbing Trend in Freedom of Speech
Handan T. Satiroglu, October 16, 2008
Surfing YouTube.com, a favorite global pastime, is anything but a predictable experience within the confines of the Turkish Republic. Before browsing, one has to wonder, ‘Is it blocked?’ ‘Unblocked?’ or ‘Is the entire site blocked or just a few select videos?’
Turkey first denied access to Youtube in March of 2007 because Greek nationalists had posted derogatory videos of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the much-revered founder of modern day Turkey. After a brief lifting of the ban, in September 2007, a series of anti-nationalist videos incurred the wrath of Turkish authorities once again, and led to Youtube’s subsequent banning. Although the site was intermittently available soon after, once videos defaming Ataturk and the Republic in general resurfaced, the block was promptly reinstituted in January 2008. On this autumn-tinged October morning, the site remains inaccessible from my temporary home in Turkey.
In a rising tide of intimidation and restriction of freedom of speech in Turkey, Youtube is hardly an isolated case. Although Youtube’s blockage has become emblematic of the wider issue of censorship, it is estimated that 853 different sites are currently blocked in Turkey – positioning Turkey in the league of countries such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.
The wide gamut of sites that read in bold red letters in Turkish Bu siteye erisim mahkeme karariyla engellenmistir (access to this site has been blocked by a court decision) include but are certainly not limited to: GeoCities, WordPress, Careerbuilder, Paris-based Dailymotion, CNN Political Ticker, independent news portals such as Bianet, sites purporting evolution rather than creationism (like that of eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins), as well as numerous Turkish blogging sites. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders condemns the denying of sites as a ‘serious violation of free speech and freedom of information,’ and urges authorities to restore access.
November 1, 2007 is infamously noted in Turkish communications history for marking the date of increased freedom of speech violations when Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) adopted the Internet Publication Law No. 5621, which includes stringent guidelines for what is deemed appropriate online content. In addition, under this new law, all commercial Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are obliged to save and store details of all the websites visited by their subscribers for the length of at least one year – a violation which the Turkish ISP community described as a ‘gross violation of privacy.’
The new regulations have outraged human rights experts and Internet service provider businesses in the country, so much so that this past June, academics, lawyers and ISP professionals gathered in Abant, a small, mountainous Northwestern town, to discuss at length the past, present and future of censorship in Turkey. Sponsored by the Ankara Bar Association and turkinternet.com, the two-day meeting ‘convened in an attempt to find solutions for the disturbing frequency by which the Turkish government has been blocking websites, especially in the last year,’ wrote Today’s Zaman, Turkey’s third largest English language newspaper.
Turkey has long had a contentious relationship with freedom of speech. The question of ‘thought freedom’ burst into the international limelight last year with the assassination of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink who was charged on three separate occasions with the crime of ‘insulting Turkishness’ under Article 301. Since the draconian Turkish Penal Code Article 301 was introduced in 2005 and made it a crime to insult ‘Turkishness’, – replacing an even more stringent law – 96 writers and intellectuals have been prosecuted, including high profile cases such as novelist Elif Safak, slain leftist journalist Ahmet Taner, and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk.
Oktay Eksi, a critical Turkish columnist put the issue of censorship into more perspective in his daily column in the mainstream Turkish newspaper Hurriyet: ‘Since shortly before the inception of the Republic in 1923, a journalist has been murdered on average every 1.5 years in Turkey,’ he lamented. According to Reporters Without Borders, Turkey ranks 101st in the world in the area of freedom of press, only trailing behind Uganda, Lebanon, and Indonesia. – not a record that bodes well with the country’s European ambitions.
Thus, given its extensive human rights violations, it is hardly surprising that the Turkish Republic has stamped another restrictive law on its citizens. In an interview with me, Dr. Howard Eissenstat, of Seton Hall and the Crown Center, explains that the new Internet law is ‘part and parcel of a worrying network of laws – of which Article 301 is the most prominent – that fundamentally limits freedom of expression in Turkey.’ Most worrisome is the new law’s ability to incriminate even those in chat rooms.
Fikret Ilkiz, lawyer of Turkey’s left leaning newspaper Cumhuriyet (read widely by Turkey’s educated elite), believes Turkey is on a slippery slope with a law whose wording is too general, ‘leaving the door wide open for authorities to prosecute’ even comments left on chat rooms or blogs.
Case in point: Mathew Mullenweg, developer of the widely used blogging platform WordPress was issued a letter in late 2007 by the Turkish Civil Court acting on behalf of one of Turkey’s Islamist creationist heavyweights Adnan Okur, on the grounds that the platform allegedly published ‘defamatory and unlawful statements about their client.’ The Court’s decision resulted in the restriction of more than one million weblogs hosted by WordPress. Under the same law, Okur also pressed charges on similar grounds against eksisozluk.com (sour dictionary), a free, semi-mock, user generated dictionary.
Bea Vanni, a long time American resident of Istanbul, summed up the prevailing attitude among Turkey’s expatriates in her popular blog: ‘This court saw fit to police the blogosphere to claim damage over someone’s opinion,’ she wrote. ‘Obviously, the plaintiff didn’t like some words said about him and filed suit in one of the most conservatively religious and Islamist areas of Istanbul. It would probably be laughed at in any other court here.’
In the same city, Aydin (who requested anonymity for security purposes), a gregarious, 29 year-old artist in show business echoed similar sentiments. Expressing disappointment at the arbitrary manner in which individuals and websites come under fire, he stated in a tone barely tinged with resentment: ‘Some of the sites have been shut down with the decision of a court in a small Anatolian town, where people do not even know how to reset a computer.’
In a nearby internet café, where clusters of teens nestle into their seats to play racy video games, their swearing and screaming filling the room, another regular user tells me: ‘All it takes is one individual to decide what is fit for public consumption.’ Indeed, more than 20,000 individual complaints have been made to the Internet Department in collaboration with the Telecommunications Authority of Turkey. Proceedings have begun for half of these complaints.
But save a few voices of protest mainly from artists, intellectuals and the ISP community, a general sense of apathy permeates the country upon the issue of media censorship – a fact in my three months of stay here that I’ve found hard to reconcile with the public’s nationalist zeal. Turks become animated when talking about the glorious days of the Ottoman Empire. The white crescent and star on a crimson red background – the Turkish flag – is a common sight in every office, café, street and building. So, how can stifling freedom of speech not be a source of embarrassment or resentment for Turks?
This is a question that runs deep, Dr. Howard reminds me. ‘While many Turks are clearly embarrassed by particular cases or particular laws, there is a basic popular acceptance of limits on freedom of expression in Turkey. Turkish popular culture is marked by a particularly militant, populist nationalism that extends across virtually the entire political spectrum.’ He continues: ‘In this context, many types of criticism are simply seen as unacceptable. This has created a context in which many Turkish citizens see limits on freedom of expression as not only acceptable but necessary.’ I’ll draw this line of thought into a harsh conclusion and propose that censorship perhaps reflects an underlying insecurity and lack of confidence within the nation and is an agreement among Turks to maintain the status quo.
About the Author
Handan Tülay Satiroglu is a Turkish-American independent journalist who divides her time between the U.S. and Europe. She has an MA in Sociology from New Mexico State University, and a B.A. from Colorado State University. In addition to her writing career, she has also taught at Northern Virginia College in the United States. Her articles have been featured in various online and print venues including, World Politics Review, The World & I Online, The Smart Set, Vision and Positive Health Magazine, among others. She was born in Colorado and has lived in Turkey, Spain, and Belgium. Visit her website at www.handansatiroglu.com. “