Turkish gov't bans YouTube, steps up pressure on media ahead of elections
(Photo: Today's Zaman)
The embattled Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, which has been the subject of graft allegations, on Thursday banned access to YouTube shortly after banning Twitter, canceling the nationwide broadcasting license of one station and issuing a record number of penalties to another.
The Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) on Thursday afternoon blocked access to popular video sharing platform YouTube hours after a leaked voice recording allegedly featuring the voices of Turkey's foreign minister, intelligence chief and a top army general discussing the developments in neighboring war-torn Syria was uploaded onto the site.
In the voice recording, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Undersecretary Hakan Fidan, Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu and Deputy Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Güler are heard discussing a possible intervention in Syria and potential reactions from the world.
The ban comes a week after Twitter was blocked by the TİB in a move widely seen as a response to leaked voice recordings posted on the micro-blogging site that seem to implicate Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his close family members and some members of his government in large-scale corruption. However, Twitter's block might be lifted soon, according to Deputy Prime Minister Emrullah İşler.
The 15th Ankara Administrative Court on Wednesday issued an injunction on Turkey's Twitter ban, saying it runs “contrary to the principles of the rule of law.” The ban had not been lifted as of Thursday, but İşler said in televised remarks: “To my knowledge, Twitter has carried out the demands of TİB and there are only a few remaining issues. When those issues are resolved, Twitter will be completely unblocked.”
The YouTube ban comes only one day after the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) canceled the nationwide broadcasting license of the Kanaltürk television station. Kanaltürk, owned by İpek Media, will now only be allowed to broadcast in the Marmara region. Reports said the five AK Party members of RTÜK voted for the cancellation, while Republican People's Party (CHP) members Ali Öztunç and Süleyman Demirkan and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) member Esat Çıplak objected to the body's decision.
The RTÜK penalty came days after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to finish off the Hizmet movement -- inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen -- and its associates, including Samanyolu Haber TV.
İpek Media Group head Fatih Karaca, who is also a former chairman of RTÜK, said the decision was against the law. “I have never spoken about any RTÜK action since I left as chairman of the board in July 2005, but I have to enlighten the public on this,” he said on Kanaltürk's afternoon news program.
He said before Kanaltürk was bought by İpek Media in 2008, there was a lawsuit ongoing regarding Kanaltürk's nationwide broadcasting rights launched in 2007. In 2011, after changes to the RTÜK law, the new management of Kanaltürk went to court, winning decisions in its favor from the 2nd Administrative Court and later the Council of State. “The decision [to cancel the national license] is based on a trial from eight years ago based on a law that is no longer in force.”
He said he hoped the decision was the result of a misunderstanding but also noted it had been taken without a statement in writing from the RTÜK Legal Undersecretariat and apparently in haste. “I was notified at 12:40 a.m. this morning,” he said.
Karaca said the nationwide broadcast license only relates to analog land frequency broadcasts which account for less than 1 percent of the station's audience. He said the license does not concern digital, cable or satellite broadcasts but noted that there was an attempt to create a misunderstanding.
He said news stories that Kanaltürk can now only be accessed in the Marmara region were untrue, adding that an advertising agency had e-mailed companies this false information as well. He said the company, which he did not name, and the RTÜK board will be held legally responsible for any financial losses Kanaltürk might incur due to the wrong perception created by the decision.
Karaca also said Kanaltürk has filed an application for a review, and he believes the decision will be reversed after RTÜK reviews it.
The move to cancel Kanaltürk's license comes shortly after RTÜK issued 36 broadcast suspension penalties for several programs of the Samanyolu Haber TV news station.
Commenting on the recent developments, Nationalist Party Movement (MHP) Ankara deputy Özcan Yeniçeri said recent developments, such as the ban on Twitter and leaked recordings allegedly proving that Erdoğan dictated the headlines of the Habertürk daily through government press commissioner Fatih Saraç, clearly demonstrate the prime minister's attitude towards society's access to news.
Yeniçeri further noted: “RTÜK meting out a deluge of penalties to networks that are not part of the chorus that broadcasts all of the prime minister's speeches uninterruptedly is a sign of a one-man regime. The pressure and intimidation on some of the media is reminiscent of [Josip] Tito's Yugoslavia. He is trying to find excuses to disable the institutions that he cannot shut down.”
“As the single-party and one-man mentality is out there, his allies and the bureaucrats that are helping Erdoğan are also responsible for what's going on. At a time when freedoms are under threat and the principles of democracy and human rights are being destroyed, it is impossible not to expect to step up pressure on the media. But with these actions Erdoğan and his accomplices are losing legitimacy.”
Republican People's Party (CHP) Deputy Chairman Gürsel Tekin said the government is ready to risk a war with Syria in an attempt to minimize the corruption scandal. “Unfortunately in this state of emergency they have started, the rule of law has been suspended. It is obvious that the AKP, which is enforcing its own laws, will prevent information from being disseminated to the public.”
He said punishing networks that broadcast the news against “hired people who disseminate propaganda for Erdoğan” is an indication that a “one-man regime” is in place. “There is no legal basis or convincing reason for canceling the license of a national network,” Tekin said.
CHP Konya deputy Atilla Kart, who is a member of the parliamentary Constitution Commission, said: “We are faced with an administration that is prepared to carry out any illegality to make sure that graft evidence doesn't make its way to the public. We are faced with a government that doesn't hesitate to manufacture evidence in order to prevent people from receiving information. All these illegal actions are being carried out for personal and political interests.”
He said Kanal Türk is making an effort to ensure that the public is properly informed. “Intolerance towards publishing and broadcasting in line with the principles of journalism has become the motto of the government.” He described the point Turkey has reached as “extremely worrying” in terms of societal and regional peace, claiming the government has shown it will not hesitate to go to war with Syria to protect its own interests.
Meanwhile, in a statement regarding the penalties, Samanyolu Media Group head Hidayet Karaca said, “These incredible penalties issued against our institution just ahead of elections which are taking place amidst graft and illegality scandals have a special meaning.”
Thirty-six suspension penalties -- all related to broadcasting about the local elections -- is a record number of penalties in the history of Turkey's television broadcasting, according to a tweet from Samanyolu Haber TV Editor-in-Chief Metin Yıkar, who also noted that the news program at Samanyolu Haber TV -- whose broadcast has been suspended -- would be broadcasted on Samanyolu TV.
Hidayet Karaca said: “With this last decision, RTÜK has clearly shown the kind of instrument of pressure on the media it has turned into at the hands of the government. The purpose of the penalties is clearly understood by the people.” He said the Samanyolu Media Group will continue broadcasting honest and impartial news but said those who are behind the illegal actions of today will be remembered as “dark stains” on the country's democracy.
MHP Deputy Chairwoman Ruhsar Demirel said the government was finding new ways of censorship. “The government, which is increasing pressure in every sphere, is doing all that it can to limit freedom to access news and information. It is demonstrating that it won't hesitate to resort to all kinds of illegal actions,” she said.
She noted that the cancellation of licenses and suspensions not only violate fundamental rights, but also intervene in free trade. “Can these illegalities that local businesses are subjected to attract foreign investors? Erdoğan doesn't care about the league of countries that Turkey, isolated from the rest of the world to such an extent, has fallen into. He has other targets. People close to him are also complicit in this.”
US expresses concerns over YouTube ban
Reacting to the YouTube ban in Turkey, US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf in Washington said the United States opposes "any action that encroaches on the right of free speech or free expression."
Harf said US officials "continue to urge the Turkish government to unblock its citizens' access now to YouTube, but also still to Twitter."
"Well, we’re having conversations to discuss the whole range of issues about freedom of expression in Turkey. As we said, our folks discussed Turkey’s new internet law, the shutdown of Twitter, and they shared US positions on internet freedom, privacy, and internet governance. We’ve been conveying in these meetings and others on the ground with the ambassador our very serious concerns about what the Turkish Government has done in the internet law, with Twitter, now with YouTube, and very strongly saying that they need to stop doing this. So it’s a constant conversation. The legal issue’s not ours, but we’re talking government to government about how Turkey can move forward," said Harf in response to a question.
US Senators condemn Turkey's ban on social media, introduce resolution
US Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, and US Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) Ranking Member of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, introduced a resolution condemning the government of Turkey for blocking social media sites like Twitter and YouTube, and restricting the free expression of the Turkish people, a press statement said.
“The touchstone of a modern and legitimate democracy is the freedom of expression enjoyed by its people. In 2014, a fundamental expression of that freedom is a people’s access to social media sites that allow them to share information and contribute to a conversation about the world around them,” said Murphy in the statement, published on his official website on Thursday. “By allowing sites like Twitter and YouTube to remain blocked, Prime Minister Erdo?an is defying an order from his very own courts. If the Turkish government wishes to move toward eventual integration into the European Union, they should reverse course and respect the right of the Turkish people to exercise their basic democratic freedoms.”
“The Turkish government’s attempt to control what its citizens learn about their leaders reminds us how crucial the freedom of speech is. It also reminds us how cautious we must be about any changes in the oversight of Internet governance. The ability of any private citizen to compete openly in offering information to others has made the Internet one of the greatest deregulatory success stories of all time. The Turkish shutdown of Twitter and YouTube for political purposes shows the danger of foreign governments gaining control over this incredible forum for liberty,” Johnson said.
Condemning the actions of the Government of Turkey in restricting free expression and Internet freedom on social media.
Whereas an independent, unfettered media and freedom of expression, including on the Internet and social media sites, are essential elements of democratic, open societies;
Whereas infringement of press freedom in Turkey is a serious concern, with more journalists currently imprisoned in Turkey than in any other country;
Whereas millions of people in Turkey, including senior members of the Government of Turkey, use Twitter and other social media sites to communicate on a daily basis;
Whereas the Government of Turkey imposed a country-wide ban on access to Twitter on March 20, 2014, blocking the use of the communications platform to engage in political speech;
Whereas respected non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, and Freedom House have condemned the decision to block Twitter as an attack on internet freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey.
Whereas the President of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, defied the ban to send out a series of tweets questioning the government’s actions;
Whereas the Turkish Bar Association argued that the ban is unconstitutional and in violation of Turkish and European human rights laws; and
Whereas, on March 26, 2014, the Turkish district court in Ankara blocked implementation of the ban due to the restriction on freedom of expression and communication that are protected by the Turkish Constitution and the European Convention of Human Rights; Now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That the Senate—
(1) condemns the Government of Turkey’s restrictions on freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and internet freedom in Turkey;
(2) recognizes the critical role that technology and social media sites play in helping independent journalists and the general public to communicate and access information;
(3) reaffirms the centrality of internet freedom to efforts by the United States Government to support democracy and promote good governance around the world;
(4) calls on the Government of Turkey to immediately end its restrictions on press freedoms, including social media, and restore access to Twitter.
Censorship of social media platforms must stop in Turkey, says OSCE media freedom representative
By blocking access to social media platforms Turkey deliberately disregards the fundamental right to freedom of expression and freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatović, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media said today.
“Within one week, access to Twitter and YouTube has been blocked in Turkey,” Mijatović said. “A regulator exercising censorship by blocking is unacceptable in democracies, and it breaches numerous OSCE and other international standards that Turkey has committed to.”
On 27 March Turkey’s telecommunications authority (TIB) blocked YouTube in the country.
“I call on the authorities to preserve the free flow of information and media freedom both online and offline, and immediately restore access to YouTube. I also urge TIB to reinstate Twitter services without delay following yesterday’s court decision annulling the ban on the website,” Mijatović said.
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media observes media developments in all 57 OSCE participating States. She provides early warning on violations of freedom of expression and media freedom and promotes full compliance with OSCE media freedom commitments.
Turkey: YouTube Block Violates Free Expression
Twitter Remains Restricted Despite Court Ruling
The Turkish government’s decision to close down YouTube by administrative order is a disastrous move for freedom of expression and the right to access information in Turkey, Human Rights Watch said today. The government similarly closed down Twitter on March 21. The restrictions violate Turkey’s obligations under international human rights law and domestic law.
The closure of YouTube by a decision of Turkey’s Telecommunications Communication Directorate came shortly after two leaked conversations were posted on the site. The conversations purported to be the foreign minister, his undersecretary, the head of the National Intelligence Agency, and deputy chief of staff of the Turkish Armed Forces discussing Turkey’s Syria policy.
“The decision to close down a whole website because of some content is arbitrary, disproportionate, and a flagrant violation of free speech and the right to access information online,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior researcher for Turkey at Human Rights Watch. “The order blocking YouTube should be reversed immediately, and access to Twitter restored without delay.”
Twitter was blocked following three court rulings on particular content and accounts. While an Ankara administrative court ordered a stay of execution on the order on March 26, the Telecommunications Communication Directorate has yet to implement the court order by unblocking the site.
Users of both sites in Turkey have circumvented the blocking orders by means of proxy sites, although some proxy sites have also been blocked. The Twitter block has drawn widespread international criticism, including from the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, the European Union, and the United States government.
In February the Turkish government adopted changes to its already restrictive Internet law, giving the Telecommunications Directorate further power to block particular content.
On December 18, 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled, in the case of Ahmet Yıldırım v. Turkey, that blocking Google Sites in Turkey violated the right to freedom of expression. A Turkish court had ordered the complete blocking of Google Sites because of one person’s post. The European Court found that Turkey’s legal framework was inadequate and did not prevent abuses and arbitrary application of blocking measures. YouTube has also been blocked in Turkey in the past, in the period between 2007 and 2010.
“The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2012 against Turkey’s practice of blocking websites, but the government has completely ignored the court’s judgment, choosing instead to impose greater restrictions on its citizens’ access to the Internet,” Sinclair-Webb said.