In the early hours of October 4, 2005, Turkey officially began accession negotiations with the EU. Over the previous four years, in order to secure a date for the opening of negotiations, successive Turkish governments had eased many of the restrictions on freedom of expression in the country. Since October 2005, however, the process has ground to a halt. Indeed, in some areas, it appears to have gone into reverse, particularly in the increasing attempts to censor the Internet.
The Turkish authorities have long sought to block Internet users in Turkey from accessing websites associated with militant groups that espouse violence, such as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Over the last 18 months, however, there has been a rapid rise in the censorship of websites, purely because they contain material that expresses values or opinions deemed unsuitable for the Turkish public.
Until May 2007, there was no legal framework in Turkey specifically designed to regulate the content of Internet websites. In practice, the judicial system tended to apply the same laws that were used to regulate traditional media outlets such as newspapers and television channels. On May 4, 2007, however, the Turkish parliament passed Law No. 5651, which was specifically designed to regulate Internet content and prevent websites from being used for crimes such as “encouraging suicide,” “the sexual exploitation of children,” “facilitating the use of narcotics,” “obscenity,” “prostitution,” and “gambling” (Law No. 5651 of May 4, 2007, published in the Official Gazette No. 26530 of May 23, 2007). The law also provided for the prevention of access to websites that violated other Turkish laws, such as anti-terrorism legislation or the law that forbids insulting the memory of the Turkish Republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Law No. 5816 of July 25, 1951, published in the Official Gazette No. 7872 of July 31, 1951). In addition, under Article 24 of the Turkish Civil Code (Turkish Ministry of Justice website, www.adalet.gov.tr), individuals can apply for access to be blocked to a website that they feel is “infringing on their personal rights.”
In the case of content that is deemed to be obscene or to exploit children sexually, Law No. 5651 empowers the state-run Telecommunications Board to prevent access to the website without recourse to a court decision. For most other offences, a court ruling is required. Since November 2007, members of the public have been able to notify the Telecommunications Board of what they believe is inappropriate content via a designated telephone number and website.
Under Turkish law, the decision to block access to a website is made by the court or by the Telecommunications Board on its own. According to figures released by Tayfun Acarer, the head of the Telecommunications Board, access has been prevented to a total of 1,112 websites since November 23, 2007, with 251 of them blocked by a court ruling and 861 by a decision of the Telecommunications Board itself. The owners of the websites in question do not need to be informed and invariably only learn that their website has even come under suspicion once access to it from inside Turkey has been blocked (Radikal, October 2, Milliyet, October 3).
Since early May, Internet users in Turkey have been prevented from accessing the popular video-sharing website YouTube, after Greek nationalist youths used the site to post some amateurish videos mocking Ataturk (Ankara First Petty Crimes Court, Decision No 2008/402 of May 5). Websites banned for “obscenity” range from genuine hardcore pornographic sites to the photographs link on www.moonamtrak.org, a website set up by a U.S. group that annually bares their buttocks at passing Amtrak trains (Ankara Ninth Petty Crimes Court, Decision No 2008/140 of February 4).
In practice, it is relatively easy to circumvent the Telecommunication Board’s filters by using proxy servers; although thus does require a modicum of computer literacy and it is unclear how many Internet users in Turkey are even aware that it is possible. Perhaps more disturbing than the measures taken by the Turkish authorities, which are little more than an irritant to someone with enough determination, is the mentality that lies behind it.
“The duty of the state is to protect its citizens and warn them against harmful Internet content,” declared Tayfun Acarer (Today’s Zaman, October 3).
In reality, of course, neither citizens nor website owners receive any warning. Access is simply blocked and attempting to lift it requires the website owner to embark on a long legal process, the outcome of which is uncertain. There are also increasing signs that Internet censorship is not being used to “protect” Turkish citizens but to try to enforce a particular worldview or political opinion.
On September 19 the Turkish courts blocked access to the website of the biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins (www.richarddawkins.net) following an application brought by lawyers acting for Adnan Oktar, a 52 year-old Islamist author and sect leader who lives in seclusion in an Istanbul suburb. Oktar is most famous for his “Atlas of Creation,” a glossy, large-format, 800-page defense of creationism. After an article posted on Dawkins’ website mocked Oktar’s scientific credentials, he applied to a court in Istanbul for access to the site to be blocked on the grounds that its contents were defamatory, blasphemous, insulting to religion, and a violation of his personal rights. The court concurred (Radikal, Milliyet, September 20).
The Turkish authorities have displayed considerably less determination, however, to suppress the expression of what might be regarded as more dangerous views. For example, there are numerous Turkish ultranationalist websites and blogs in Turkey which eulogize Ogun Samast, who murdered Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink on January 19, 2007. Most recently, a court in the city of Duzce ruled that no action should be taken against Isin Ersen, a columnist on the Bolu Express local newspaper who, in October 2007, had called for the murder of members of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP). The court decided that Ersen’s call fell within the scope of freedom of speech (see EDM, October 2). Ersen’s article is still easily accessible via the Bolu Express website (www.boluexpress.com).