On June 18 and 19 Turkish lawyers, academics and Internet professionals met in the mountain resort of Abant in the Bolu mountains of northwest Turkey to discuss the increasing censorship of the Internet in Turkey through the use of court orders to block access to websites.
Turkey has long suffered from often draconian restrictions on freedom of expression, in which numerous books and newspapers have been banned and journalists, activists and academics imprisoned for merely expressing opinions contrary to those espoused by the authorities. But during the early years of the Internet, the authorities lacked both the legislation and the technical means to censor it. The result, at least for those with access to a computer, was a sudden exposure to a broad, unprecedented spectrum of opinion, some of which challenged long-standing taboos such as discussions of Kurdish nationalism and the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), who founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923. In recent years, however, new legislation and changing technology have enabled the authorities to impose increasingly tight restrictions on Turks’ access to the Internet.
The first change came in 2004 and 2005 when ADSL broadband, which is the almost exclusive preserve of a single company, Turk Telekom, began to replace dial-up access, which had been provided by over 100 Internet Service Providers (ISPs). As a result, the authorities effectively must notify only one company in order to block access to what they consider undesirable websites.
In 2007 the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rushed through a new law to regulate the Internet. Law No. 5651, which came into force on November 27, 2007, listed the terms under which access to websites could be blocked by the courts: seven offences in the Turkish Penal Code (ranging from “encouraging suicide” to “facilitating the use of narcotics,” “obscenity” and the “sexual exploitation of children”) as well as a 1951 law that makes it a criminal offence to denigrate the memory of Ataturk. Law No. 5651 also required ISPs to store details of all the websites visited by their subscribers for a period of one year (see EDM, November 16, 2007).
Even before the introduction of Law No. 5651, the authorities had begun to order Turk Telekom to block access to certain sites, extending the restrictions on laws designed for the printed word into the digital domain. The Turkish courts forbade access to 153 websites in 2005, 886 in 2006 and 549 in 2007 (figures from www.turk.internet.com, a website for Turkish Internet professionals). Access has been forbidden to a further 124 websites under Law No. 5651 since it came into force on November 27, 2007. Most strikingly, since May 5 Turks have been prevented from accessing the video-sharing website YouTube because it contains videos that allegedly insult Ataturk.
The Turkish courts have also continued to block access to websites that do not fall within the scope of Law No. 5651, including 102 in the first five months of 2008 (www.turk.internet.com). A large number are believed to have been banned under Turkish anti-terrorism legislation, which makes it an offence to “encourage terrorism.” In practice, the proscription has traditionally been used not only against supporters of violent groups but also against the non-violent expression of similar causes. Access has been blocked, for example, not only to websites affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) but also to some websites that espouse Kurdish nationalism but are opposed to violence.
Internet professionals in Turkey complain that the court decisions are often arbitrary and the decision-making processes opaque. In recent months websites such as the news portal of the Independent News Network (www.bianet.org) and www.tumgazeteler.com, which offers a compendium of links to news stories that have appeared in the Turkish press, have both been closed by the courts after complaints that they contained articles that were deemed detrimental to the national interest. In each case the injunction was subsequently lifted, but many others have not been so fortunate.
The courts currently issue injunctions based on complaints. There is no legal requirement for the courts to inform the websites concerned, much less to ask them to defend themselves. As a result, the first websites usually know of the injunction is when users who try to access the site are met with a message stating that it has been blocked by the order of a specific court on a specific day. No details are given of the alleged offence.
Fusun Nebil, a manager at turk.internet.com, noted that the courts do not even give the website the opportunity to remove the offending page but immediately block access to the entire site. “It’s like burning the entire library because of one book," she said (Today’s Zaman, June 3).
Although websites based in Turkey are occasionally able to appeal successfully against court injunctions, those based abroad have to wait for a change of heart by a Turkish judge. For the moment at least, the signs are not encouraging. The Public Prosecutor’s office in Ankara has recently announced that it will only consider lifting the injunction on YouTube if it removes all the offending videos related to Ataturk from its website, thus making them inaccessible to Internet users all over the world (Turkish Daily News, June 18).
Even if the lawyers, academics and Internet professionals meeting in Abant manage to come up with some recommendations to ease restrictions on Turks’ access to the Internet, persuading the judiciary to accept them is likely to be a considerable challenge.