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In the Dark

With online censorship an increasingly commonplace part of life in Turkey, activists warn that it is not enough to simply find your way around bans.

by Ahmet A. Sabanci 5 December 2018

As our regular readers know, TOL normally does not cover Turkey, unless an issue concerns one of the countries we do cover in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, through the fall and perhaps beyond, we are making an exception because of the dire situation faced by many journalists in Turkey since the attempted coup in 2016. After that dramatic event, almost 200 media outlets were closed down and scores of critically minded journalists lost their jobs and now struggle to eke out an existence. We are proud to provide some international exposure to many of these Turkish reporters and expand, at least for now, our mission of supporting independent journalism and the freedom of the media to this fascinating and important part of the world.

 

 

When two members of the banned communist group DHKP-C kidnapped a district attorney from his office in Istanbul in 2015, they posted photos of their hostage held at gunpoint on the popular image-sharing website imgur.com. The kidnappers and their victim, Mehmet Selim Kiraz, were all killed in the subsequent rescue attempt.

 

Later that year, in what has become a familiar pattern for followers of Ankara’s increasing restrictions on freedom of speech, a Turkish court banned the entire imgur.com website.

 

Since 2014, many websites and social media platforms have been periodically proscribed or restricted by the authorities, who cite counterterror measures.

 

Wikipedia, for instance, has been completely blocked by the Turkish government since April 2017, after content – alleging that the Turkish government supported militant groups in the Middle East – appeared on the site. People in Turkey can now access Wikipedia only through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) – a service that protects private web traffic and hides one’s online actions.

 

Activists are attempting to challenge this policy through the courts, warning that internet censorship is becoming an unexceptional fact of everyday life in Turkey.

 

Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, and Kerem Altiparmak – a human rights activist and law professor, who recently resigned from Ankara University – are currently suing the government over the imgur.com case.

 

Yaman Akdeniz during the OSCE RFoM second expert meeting on open journalism, in September 2014. Image via OSCE Representative of Freedom in Media/ Flickr.

 

“Blocking the whole website because of one image is against both Turkey’s Constitutional Court and ECHR [European Court of Human Rights] decisions, and a measure that is way too harsh,” Akdeniz said.

 

The pair, prominent activists in the field of digital rights and censorship, have challenged more than 100 court decisions blocking certain websites in Turkey.

 

A handful of their petitions have been successful. For instance, when the Turkish government moved to block access to Twitter and YouTube due to several videos and tweets that the authorities claimed were illegal, Akdeniz and Altiparmak took these cases to the Constitutional Court of Turkey and the ECHR.

 

The latter ruled that both decisions were a violation of freedom of expression, and that the ban should be removed. In this case, the Turkish authorities respected the ECHR’s decision, and the ban on Twitter and YouTube was lifted.

 

Speak Up Against Censorship: Don't Speak Around It

 

Akdeniz said that taking the government to court was important, even though not every case could be won.

 

Kerem Altiparmak and Yaman Akdeniz at Columbia Global Freedom of Expression Prize events. Image via Eileen Barroso/Columbia University.

 

“The government sees the internet as its last battleground, and the pressure will not cease anytime soon,” he said. “That’s why fighting censorship in court is very important. Even if we don’t achieve any results, a record will remain of the enormous scale of the internet censorship we are witnessing in Turkey today.”

 

The Turkish government currently blocks more than 220,000 internet sites and more than 150,000 URLs.

 

Sevket Uyanik, from the Common Knowledge and Communication Association, also warned that internet censorship had become routine.

 

Sevket Uyanik at the Personal Democracy Forum. Image by Ezgi Ece Askingil.

 

“Our society has accepted censorship and self-censorship as something normal and that is really worrying,” he said. “Instead of fighting censorship, people are finding a way around it, with the help of VPNs or other services, but that’s not enough.”

 

Just a few years ago, continued Uyanik, things were very different. When a law was introduced that handed control over the internet to the government in 2011, tens of thousands of people gathered in Istanbul to protest.

 

In just a few years, internet censorship has become normalized, Uyanik continued.

Ahmet A. Sabanci is a freelance writer, journalist, and translator. His articles have been published in The Guardian, Global Voices, The Daily Dot, Journo.com, and other media outlets. He is also the newsletter editor at NewsLabTurkey.

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