How Turkey blocking websites became the norm – columnist

Turkish courts order removals for at least three news items every day, journalist Arzu Geybullayeva wrote in an article for Global Voices on Friday citing a report by the Media Research Association (MEDAR).

The stories in question are often related to corruption or irregularities in due process, she said, and removal requests come from government officials or businessmen directly involved in them, based on their personal rights.

More than 40 percent of stories that were blocked between November 2019 and October 2020 were related to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his family, or officials of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Geybullayeva said citing another report by Free Web Turkey.

Turkey’s blocking tradition started with the YouTube ban of March 2007, when a video was taken to court for insulting the republic’s founding president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, which has its own article in the Turkish penal code.

In May 2007, Turkey passed the Law No. 5651 on Regulation of Publications on the Internet, which enabled public prosecutors to ban any web page or site within 24 hours by court or administrative order by the Presidency of Telecommunications (TİB). The law was amended several times over the years, getting more restrictive with each iteration.

In 2014, TİB was granted authority to issue URL-based blocks over an individual’s right to privacy without a court order, which often meant news stories on unlawful practices of government officials could be swept under the rug.

Immediately after a state of emergency was declared on July 21, 2016, following the failed coup attempt of July 15, at least 100 websites including Wikipedia were banned by the newly established Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK).

In 2019, Turkey’s media watchdog Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) was granted authority over online audiovisual media. In 2020, the Law No.5651 was amended to grant the courts authority to fully remove content, instead of merely banning access.

Finally last year, the AKP introduced a draft bill to introduce jail time for what it called disseminating false information via traditional and social media. The bill, seen as a final nail in the coffin of press freedom and independent media in the country, was sent to parliament last week and passed the first stage on June 2.

Discussions over the so-called Disinformation Act will continue at the Parliamentary Justice Commission, and will come to the general session to be voted on if it passes. On the day the Parliamentary Digital Media Commission moved to approve the draft, AKP deputy Ahmet Özdemir said the articles pertaining to jail time could be improved, signalling a possible backtrack by the government.

Journalists’ organisations and opposition parties believe the new law would increase censorship. The International Press Institute (IPI), Journalists’ Union of Turkey (TGS) and several other professional organisations said in a joint statement that the law “could lead to one of the heaviest censorship and self-censorship mechanisms in the history of the Republic”.

“If the bill becomes law, it will boost systematic censorship and self-censorship in Turkey instead of fighting disinformation,” IPI said. “A media law that fails to reflect the views of journalists and journalism organizations cannot solve the problem of disinformation.”

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