Turkey’s New Internet Regulations Spark Fears of New Wave of Censorship

In Turkey, new controls regulating internet use have come into force. The government says all broadcasters, who are already restricted, need to abide by the same rules on the internet, but critics claim the new measures are an attempt to silence the last platform for independent journalism.

"This measure burns us," said Onur Oncu, explaining his reaction to the new internet controls. Oncu works as a reporter for Ozguruz, an internet news portal.

Every day, Oncu sends news reports from his bedroom to Berlin, where Ozguruz is based.

The website claims to provide independent news outside the control of Turkey's state regulatory authority.

But according to new regulations, internet broadcasting now falls under government control.

"There are so many internet portals in Turkey. News sites, web TV, even by phone, people can do citizen journalism via Periscope," said Oncu. "And the government saw this, and it became a troublesome issue for them because they couldn't prevent it. The new broadcasting law has become a way to prevent it."

Media watchdogs

According to media watchdogs, as much as 90% of mainstream media is pro-government-owned, while state regulations impose strict controls on reporting.

With the government's tightening grip on the mainstream media, the number of TV and radio internet news sources grew exponentially.

Many well-known traditional journalists, who had been fired for critical reporting, now work on the internet.

Government attempts to regulate such webcasters are seen as just the latest attempt to control the internet.

"For obtaining crucial political information, you have to go to social media," said Yaman Akdeniz of the Istanbul-based Freedom of Expression Society.

"That's why the Turkish authorities are targeting the internet," he added. "Whether through working practices or whether through now regulating or trying to regulate the radio-television services. But also the high number of criminal investigations and prosecutions."

Turkish authorities have blocked over 245,000 websites, according to the Istanbul Freedom of Expression association, making Turkey one of the world's most restrictive countries for the internet. Twitter and YouTube have been temporarily blocked, while Wikipedia has been banned since 2017.

The government says the latest internet control measures are aimed at harmonizing broadcasting regulations so that all broadcasters follow the same rules.

Under the new law, broadcasters that are refused a license or don't apply can be blocked or face hefty fines.

Court fight

In Istanbul's Kadikoy district, lawyers pack a seminar to the bursting point to attend a legal briefing on the new regulations.

The organizers, the Freedom of Expression Association, say the event was oversubscribed several times.

"The law should protect individuals' right to voice their thoughts," said attending lawyer Selmin Sahin. "The [Turkish] lawmakers should remember this. We are at the beginning of this road, but I believe we can improve."

The past few months have seen the judiciary rule against the government in high-profile cases on freedom of expression.

In September, Turkey's top appeals court ruled for the release of five journalists from jail. They were among 14 other former employees of the Cumhuriyet newspaper convicted on terrorism charges. The case was widely seen as pivotal to media freedom, with the Cumhuriyet one of few remaining independent publications.

Turkey's Constitutional court in July decided in favor of hundreds of academics convicted on terrorism charges. The court ruled their freedom of expression was infringed for being convicted for signing a petition calling for an end to fighting between the Turkish government and Kurdish insurgents.

But a crackdown on pro-Kurdish internet media appears to be intensifying.

"Kurdish media and news broadcasting on the internet is constantly targeted, and every new web site they open is subject to a blocking order [by authorities]," Akdeniz said .

"It takes many years to take blocking decisions to the constitutional court and get a decision," he added. "Some of the applications we made in 2015 are yet to be heard. That's why the news providers, rather than giving up, constantly adapt and find new ways, like [video streaming service] Periscope. Some news providers now use Instagram."

For Oncu, with a colleague having fled the country and his editor living in Berlin, his faith is relying on the power of the internet to resist control.

"They are attempting to block, but there is an alternative. When they shut down our website, we started broadcasting by phones," Oncu said. "Unless they cut the cord for the internet, there could always be alternatives: YouTube, for example. It could be VINE or Facebook. I mean, there are many alternatives available, so I don't think they can cope with this."

Source: Voice of America