The year 2010 was marked by the widely covered deblocking of the video-sharing website YouTube which, unfortunately, did not equate to a lifting of online censorship in Turkey. In a country where taboo topics abound, several thousand websites are still inaccessible and legal proceedings against online journalists persist.
The YouTube saga
Much was written throughout Turkey in 2010 about the fate of the Google-owned video-sharing website YouTube. Blocked in Turkey since May 2008 because of videos which Ataturk, the founder of the Republic and the nation, deemed "offensive", it was rendered accessible again in October 2010 after a series of unexpected developments.
In June 2010, the Turkish Supreme Council for Telecommunications and IT (TIB) asked Internet service providers to block new YouTube-linked IP addresses. Certain Google services, such as Google Analytics, Google AdWords and Google Docs were also frozen.
On 5 July, the Turkish media pointed out certain contradictions in the authorities’ statements about this blocking. Judge Hayri Keskin affirmed that the site was being censored for violating the Internet law, while Transport Minister Binali Yildirim implied that the government was seeking to tax YouTube’s ad revenue. In statements reported by several Turkish media, President Abdullah Gul nonetheless said that he was opposed to censorship and called for the law to be changed. "I do not want Turkey to be included among the countries that ban YouTube and prevent access to Google. If there are problems due to our legislation, there should be ways to overcome that.”
On 30 October 2010, an Ankara court lifted the ban on YouTube, a decision which the international community welcomed as an encouraging first step.
Yet the saga does not end there. On 2 November 2010, an Ankara court placed a new ban on YouTube as the result of a complaint filed by Deniz Baykal, former head of Republican People’s Party (CHP), the country’s main opposition party. He had been forced to resign after a video was circulated on the Internet showing an individual resembling him, implicated in an adulterous relationship. The court then referred the matter to the TIB, which ordered the website’s administrators to remove the compromising videos under penalty of being blocked – a request with which YouTube complied.
There is no certainty that YouTube will not be blocked again should a new complaint be made. The Turkish courts or the TIB may also have social networks such as Facebook in their line of sight. It would not be a first: myspace.com was blocked in September 2009 for “copyright infringements,” then unblocked the following month. The Vimeo video-sharing website was banned for several days in September 2010 on personal “offence” charges following a “preventive” decision by the Ankara public prosecutor’s office at the request of CHP Deputy Chairman Mehmet Akif Hamzaçebi.
In March 2011, Google-owned Blogger plateform was rendered inaccessible in Turkey. A local court banned the entire service, used by some 600 000 Turkish bloggers, in response to a complaint by satellite TV firm Digitürk that streaming media feeds from local soccer games were appearing on multiple Blogger websites, violating copyrights.
Thousands of sites blocked
YouTube’s fortunate outcome should not be a pretext to ignore the extent of online blocking and censorship in the country, or the arrests and legal proceedings against bloggers and netizens.
According to engelliweb.com, some 8,170 Internet websites are currently inaccessible either as the result of a court decision or at the initiative of the TIB. In June 2010, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) estimated that “over 5,000 sites” had been blocked in the last two years. In 2009, it had estimated 3,700, some for “arbitrary and political reasons.”
Notwithstanding, if the figures have increased, it does not necessarily mean that the number of news websites concerned has risen. Most blocked sites are erotic or pornographic, or devoted to games of chance, or soccer match coverage. Others focus on the gay community or dissemination news, for example about the Kurd issue, criticise high-ranking officials, or discuss what are deemed to be terrorist organisations.
Ataturk, the Turkish Army, the nation, the issue of minorities – notably the Kurd – and the so-called “terrorist” organisations are still highly controversial topics. Denouncing abuses committed by senior officials is becoming an increasingly risky undertaking. Access to the website of Çine Uğur, the local newspaper in the southwestern province of Aydin in western Turkey, was banned by a September 2010 court decision because of a critical article about Çine’s District Governor, Celalettin Cantürk. The newspaper’s publication director Yilmaz Saglik, who is now being sued, was forced to remove the incriminated article. Any strong language in a discussion forum is likely to trigger the blocking of the website hosting the latter, as was the case for gazetevatan.com and egitimsen.com.tr.
A legislation-backed censorship?
Turkish Law 5651 on the Internet provides for the widespread mass blocking of websites. The OSCE therefore called for Turkey to implement reforms promoting freedom of expression. Article 8 of this Law authorises blocking access to certain websites if there is even an “adequate suspicion” that any of the following eight offences are being committed: encouraging suicide, sexual exploitation or abuse of children, facilitating the use of narcotics, supply of unhealthy substances, obscenity, online betting; or anti-Ataturk crimes. It is this latter provision which causes difficulties. In its name, websites hosted in Turkey are often shut down, and those hosted abroad are filtered and blocked by Internet service providers. Denunciations are encouraged: Internet users can call a hotline to report prohibited online content and illegal activities. Over 80,000 calls were recorded in May 2009, as compared to 25,000 in October 2008.
Site-blocking is carried out by court orders or by administrative orders of the Supreme Council for Telecommunications and IT. Such administrative decisions are arbitrary and preclude the possibility of a fair trial. This entity, which was created in 2005 in the aim of centralising surveillance and the interception of communications (including on the Internet), has not issued its blacklist of blocked websites since May 2009 – indicating a troubling lack of transparency. In May 2010, Yaman Akdeniz, professor of Internet law at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, filed a complaint against the TIB for having neglected, for one year, to meet its obligations to provide statistics of censured websites.
According to the OSCE, over 80% of the blockings observed in May 2009 were the result of administrative orders. The majority of them were made on grounds of “obscenity” and “the sexual exploitation of children.” However, in addition to these site blockings, 158 “illegal” contents dealing with Ataturk were allegedly removed at the request of the TIB. By virtue of Article 9 of Law 5651, individuals who feel that their rights have been violated may request that the site or its host remove the incriminated content.
More troubling is the fact that nearly 200 court decisions were recorded in 2009 ordering website blockings for reasons beyond the scope of Law 5651, thereby rendering the blockings unjustified. For example, the independent news site istanbul.indymedia.org was suspended for “insulting Turkish identity” – a crime which falls within the jurisdiction of the Turkish Penal Code and not Law 5651. The other counts of indictment used were “dissemination of terrorist propaganda” (by virtue of the Anti-Terrorist Law) and “incitement to hatred” (by virtue of the Turkish Penal Code). Some Internet sites were also rendered inaccessible as the result of libel suits.
Moreover, Turkish law does not oblige the authorities to inform defendants of the rulings rendered and the sites often find out for themselves that they have been blocked. Rather than to legally contest the blocking decisions, which has rarely occurred, some sites change their domain names to circumvent the censorship.
Most importantly, censorship can be circumvented via proxy servers or VPNs, and blocked websites are often accessible on BlackBerrys and iPhones.
Netizens “harassed” for expressing their opinions
As of this date, no online journalist or blogger is behind bars in Turkey. Some have even been acquitted while on trial, but many court proceedings are underway.
Baris Yarkadas, an online journalist working for the newspaper Gercek Gündem (“Real Agenda”), was acquitted on 9 June 2010 of the charge of having "insulted the President of the Republic." He was facing a sentence of 5 years and 4 months in prison by virtue of Article 299, paragraph 2, of the Turkish Penal Code for having failed to withdraw from his newspaper’s website a critical article posted by an Internet user. Yet the journalist is still being sued by Nur Birgen, Chair of the Institute for Forensic Medicine’s Third Specialisation Board, who filed a complaint against him for “personally offending” her by referring in an article to allegations of human rights violations which several NGOs had made against her.
Ali Baris Kurt and Mehmet Nuri Kokcuoglu, the owner and director of the pro-Kurd website gunesincocuklari.com (“Günesin Cocuklari,” or “Children of the Sun”), were acquitted in July 2010. They had been charged with “alienating the public from military service,” “inciting hatred and racial hostility,” and “praising a crime,” for having posted a news article in 2006 entitled “The military service means murder," for which they faced a possible ten-year prison term.
After ten months of detention pending trial, Aylin Duruoglu, Director of the Vatan website (gazetevatan.com) and Mehmet Yesiltepe, an employee of the magazine Devrimci Hareket (“Revolutionary Movement”) were granted a conditional release. They remain charged with being members of the armed military group, “ Devrimci Karargah” (“Revolutionary Headquarters”), an accusation which Aylin Duruoglu firmly denies. The trial is still in progress.
Cem Buyukcakir, the general publications director of the Turkish Haberin Yeri (“news site”), was given a suspended eleven-month prison sentence for having “insulted President Gul” for having published following a comment posted by a reader in 2008. He appealed the decision, but the appeals court will not hear his case for one year.
In May 2010, Erdem Büyük, a student, was given an eleven-month suspended jail sentence on a five-year probation period for “attacking personal rights” after posting a caricature of Yilmaz Büyükerşen, the city of Eskisehir’s mayor, on his Facebook page, even though he had only transferred this caricature, not created it.
The trials of Halil Savda, Sebnem Korur Fincanci and Adnan Demir are still in progress. Savda is scheduled to appear before the Third Chamber of the Beyoglu Criminal Court in Istanbul on 24 March 2011.
Lastly, Soner Yalçin, the owner of the Oda TV news website, Baris Pehlivan, the site’s editor, and Baris Terkoglu, one of its reporters, were arrested on February 14 when counter-terrorism police raided the website’s Istanbul headquarters. They stand accused of “inciting hatred and hostility through the media,” membership of a “terrorist organization” and obtaining and publishing confidential state documents. They are facing possible sentences of more than 20 years in jail. The “terrorist organization” referred to in the charges is Ergenekon, an alleged secret network of senior army officers, academics, businessmen and others who have been on trial since October 2008 on charges of plotting to use terrorist methods to overthrow Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. Reporters Without Borders has urged the judicial authorities handling this sensitive case to adhere strictly to the law. Four other journalists from odatv.com were also arrested on 6 March 2011 : Müyesser Yildiz, Dogan Yurdakul, Coskun Musluk et Sait Cakir.
Revenge of the netizens?
In order to protest against censorship, in mid-June 2010, hackers blocked for ten hours the websites of the TIB, the Turkish Telecommunications Authority, the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (ICTA) and The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey. Several hours later, the blocking was lifted and the following message appeared on the sites concerned: “This is being done to show our good will.”
In fact, online censorship is widely criticised in Turkish society, as attested to by the online mobilisations and protests demanding that it stop.
The anti-Net censorship campaigns launched in 2010 met with various degrees of success, such as the one initiated by yeter.neonebu.com (“Stop Internet Censorship in Turkey!”), or the website sansuresansur.blogspot.com (“Censor Censorship”), or the one entitled “Internet sansür degil, Hiz Ister” (“The Internet needs speed, not censorship”). These campaigns, among others, were well-covered online.
Online protests have been backed by several real-life demonstrations. In July 2010, for the first time, over 2,000 people paraded down Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue, answering a call by sites campaigning for freedom of expression on the Net, for example the “Common Platform Against Internet Censorship”. They called for the end of Web censorship and denounced the authorities’ lack of response to calls for amending Law 5651 on Internet-related offences. The blocking of YouTube was highlighted as a source of embarrassment for Turkey.
Some time has passed since then and the deblocking of YouTube – which could be called into question at any time – must not be allowed to mask the extent of Web censorship in the country, or the archaic nature of the Internet laws. Vigilance is needed after a year as sombre for freedom of expression in Turkey as 2010 proved to be.