The age of Internet restrictions in Turkey

The age of Internet restrictions in Turkey

Senior officials from Turkey and the EU will meet at a summit in Varna on March 26, hoping to move toward normalizing relations after nearly two years of tension. Although expectations for a breakthrough on key issues like visa liberalization, upgrading the customs union, and reviving Ankara’s accession process are low, it is still important that the two sides are continuing to engage, listen to each other and more importantly continue to working together on mainly transactional matters.

However, the core of the Ankara-Brussels relationship is much wider and deeper. It’s based on Turkey’s accession process and therefore on its performance in meeting the criteria cited in the acquis communautaire of the EU. As a candidate country in negotiations to join the EU as a full member, Turkey’s progress in meeting necessary requirements has long been observed and reported by the European Commission.

The Commission’s next “progress report” will be released in April, just a few weeks after the Varna Summit on March 26. It would be no exaggeration to predict that the upcoming report will not only illustrate how the democratic achievements of the country over the last two decades have been tarnished in recent years. It will also shape the future format of the Turkey-EU relationship.

Diplomatic sources in Ankara predict that the report, which will be based on developments that took place in 2017, will herald an unpromising future for Turkey’s accession process (if of course the government still even has such an agenda).

Although senior government officials often underline the need for Turkey to return to a reformist agenda to avoid further ruining the country’s image in the world, their actions are hardly in line their words.

If they were, they would have refrained from controversial legislation introducing new restrictions on use of the Internet in Turkey. The law regulating video and audio broadcasts online was approved in the Turkish Parliament on March 21 with the majority votes of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its political ally the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

As a result of the law, service providers planning to publish broadcasts on the Internet must get a broadcast license and transmission authorization from the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK). In the absence of a license, a magistrate judge will be able to rule to deny access to specific content within 24 hours following a complaint from the RTÜK. If the judge decides that the content is illegal then only access to the specific content will be blocked, rather than access to the entire broadcasting website.

One dissenting member of the RTÜK, İlhan Taşcı, believes the law is a new tool to impose censorship on Internet broadcasting and control the entire online environment in Turkey. “Will the RTÜK consider broadcasting of a public event through Facebook, YouTube or Twitter a personal broadcast? Or will it impose sanctions on the broadcaster through this law? Today there are a number of personal broadcasters with tens of thousands of viewers in what can be called the ‘alternative media,’” he said.

Taşcı, a member of the watchdog from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), says the main objective behind the law is to bring the Internet environment under control.

“Censorship can be imposed on an already aired broadcast. What’s more, the RTÜK may reject any application from a media organ for an online broadcasting license in the event that it has fails to pass a ‘security investigation.’ The RTÜK therefore now has the authority to censor even before the airing of the broadcast,” he said.

Considering the fact that Wikipedia is still banned in Turkey, while Twitter and YouTube have also faced temporary shutdowns in the past, the authorities now in the hands of the RTÜK look sure lead to future restrictions on freedom of expression.

Professor Yaman Akdeniz of Bilgi University penned a useful analysis of the drafted version of the law, outlining the following potential outcomes:

- The new “licensing model” endangers any platform or website with audio-visual content, as well as on-demand media services transmissions capability, whether based in Turkey or elsewhere. Its aim is to affect audiences in Turkey in both Turkish and other languages, even if the broadcast does not originate in Turkey and takes the form of commercial communication. This means every alternative news provider, including all Internet media services, will be subject to licensing, including the independent Medyascope TV and Evrensel WebTV among others.

- What’s more, every Turkish media service provider with Internet media services operating from outside Turkey will be subject to licensing. Every foreign media service provider with a Turkish service - such as the BBC, Voice of America and DW (Deutsche Welle) - will be subject to this new provision. Every foreign media service provider with “commercial communications broadcasting” addressed to audiences in Turkey - even if the broadcast language is not Turkish - including the likes of Netflix and CNN International, could be subject to licensing.

- The licensing model is also likely to cover video sharing platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo, as article 29/A (1) and (4) of the law covers presentation of on demand media services exclusively via the Internet. Although it could be argued that YouTube and Vimeo are not “video on demand platform providers,” the definition of an “on demand media service” in Law No. 6112 includes a catalogue of programs selected by users. Any YouTube channel could end up being considered within this context.

It can clearly be seen that this new legislation constitutes yet another worrying step taken by the government, curbing fundamental freedoms and censoring online expression.