News

March 12, 2019

Turkey's courts blocked nearly 3,000 online articles last year

Credit: Ozan Kose / AFP
On World Day Against Cyber-Censorship, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is drawing attention to the alarming level of cyber-censorship in Turkey, where the judicial authorities blocked almost 3,000 online articles last year and the regime is beginning to clamp down on online video services.

The Turkish regime’s fight against independently reported news and information is being waged online as well. According to a report for the Turkish website Bianet by RSF’s Turkey representative, Erol Önderoğlu, the country’s courts blocked at least 2,950 articles and journalistic content items during 2018.


In addition to this shocking figure, an unknown number of content blockings were carried out without references to the courts. A total of 2,047 pages on the newspaper Hürriyet’s website alone were blocked in the past five years, according to Faruk Bildirici, who was recently fired as its  ombudsman after it was bought by a pro-government press group.


The range of subjects that are off limits keeps on growing and now includes corruption, issues related to Turkey’s Kurdish minority, criticism of politicians, religious leaders or celebrities, and human rights violations.


List of taboos gets longer


Ten articles on different websites were simultaneously blocked in October 2018 at the request of Limak, a flagship Turkish construction company accused of embezzlement in connection with construction of Istanbul’s third airport. Other big companies allied with the government, such as Calik, Kalyon and Cengiz, also managed to have around 100 articles suppressed last year. Two reports blocked in June revealed that a building with a large area of land has been assigned to a foundation whose executives included President Erdoğan’s son.


“The Internet no longer escapes the straitjacket imposed on Turkish journalism, which is now required to espouse the regime’s nationalism and respect an ever-longer list of taboos,” Erol Önderoğlu said. “On the pretext of ensuring the country’s or the government’s stability, the authorities are clearly seeking to stifle the public debate and protect the powerful from scrutiny. The constitutional court must finally play its role and stop the escalating censorship.”


As well as censoring many critical news sites, the authorities have no scruples about occasionally blocking entire online platforms such as Blogspot and SoundCloud. Wikipedia, which is accused of equating the Turkish government with Islamic State, has been inaccessible since April 2017.


Social networks are closely watched. Turkey requests the removal of more content from Twitter than any other country. No one still keeps count of the number of people jailed for a single post. And the government has gone so far as to temporarily deprive entire Kurdish-majority cities of their Internet connection and is now targeting censorship circumvention tools.


No recourse against censorship


Abdicating its responsibility to ensure respect for freedom of expression, the constitutional court has refused to rule on online censorship cases for years. Two well-known lawyers, Yaman Akdeniz and Kerem Altıparmak, have received no response to the dozens of appeals they have filed since 2015 against the blocking of such news sites as Sendika, Birgün or Diken, or the appeal they filed in May 2017 against the blocking of Wikipedia.


“The constitutional court is careful to tackle only the most innocuous cases and leaves the political ones,” Altıparmak told RSF. The court handles cases selectively, according to their level of sensitivity for the government, he says. Officially, the court has closed 98% of the cases initiated in 2015, but none of them involves online censorship. This makes it harder for lawyers to turn to the European Court of Human Rights, which usually insists that all domestic judicial remedies must be exhausted first.


In September 2018, the constitutional court exceptionally granted an appeal by the newspaper Cumhuriyet against the blocking of an article about clientelistic practices by local leaders. But the decision has little chance of being treated as a precedent by a judicial system that is under the increasingly authoritarian regime’s close control.


Targeting online video


The authorities now have online video in their sights. Under a new directive awaiting nothing more than the president’s signature, online video services will be unable to operate in Turkey without a licence that needs the approval of the police and intelligence agencies.


Once registered, these video services will be supervised by the High Council for Broadcasting (RTÜK), a politicized regulator to which they will have to surrender data on request, including subscriber details.


As well as digital TV providers and online streaming services such as Netflix, the new law could also affect alternative content providers such as Medyascope, Evrensel WebTV and Artı TV and platforms such as Periscope, which many censored media use to disseminate their content. Resources based abroad or broadcasting in foreign languages will also be affected.


The already worrying situation of Turkey’s media has become critical since an abortive coup in July 2016. Many media outlets have been closed summarily, without any effective form of recourse, mass trials are being held and Turkey now holds the world record for the number of professional journalists in prison. It is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.