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Free Web Turkey: Online censorship marks the end of news

This week’s guests of Soner Şimşek on MLSA TV were lawyer Gülşah Deniz Atalar, journalist Gürkan Özturan and MLSA Co-Director Barış Altıntaş. They evaluated the findings of the Free Web Turkey project which have been published under the report titled End of News: Internet censorship in Turkey.

Barış Altıntaş, Co-Director of the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA) was the first to take the floor. Explaining that MLSA established the Free Web Turkey platform in 2019 as reaction to the increasing pressure on the Internet, Altıntaş said: “The development that raised our concerns most was the regulation that placed streaming broadcasts under the control of the Radio and Television supreme council [RTÜK].”

“65 % of block decisions are targeted at news URLs”

Altıntaş underlined that the platform focused mainly on journalism in its research and stated: “In the report, we followed a thematic method to examine news on which topics are blocked most often.” Altıntaş stated that from the publicly reported blocking decisions, they identified at least 1910 affected URLs, whereby 65 % of the blocking decisions were targeted at news URLs, 42 % of the blocked news were related to the government and its close circles and 26 news sites were banned during the 12-month project period. 

“The government thinks it has achieved its goal”

Taking the floor after Altıntaş shared the report findings, lawyer Gülşah Deniz Atalar started her speech by stating that the Republican People’s Party (CHP) has applied to the Constitutional Court (TCC) for the abolition of the social media legislation. She said: “If the government is dissatisfied with the state of the law no. 5651 [Turkey’s Internet Law], then a complete change of the law can be discussed.” Atalar emphasized that changes could be made in the case that it turns out that some articles are not working but she also added she is not sure whether the issue will be brought before the Parliament anymore. “I’m not sure because it seems like it is not on their agenda. The government thinks that it has achieved its goal with the opening of representative offices by companies such as TikTok, Dailymotion and Facebook,” she said. 

Atalar told that lawyers are still discussing whether the newly opened representations are “real or ghost” ones and stated that the answer to this question is not clear. Moreover, Atalar brought up the following questions: “Will they respond to demands? Will they move their databases here? Or is it a temporary solution to circumvent the advertisement ban?” After reminding that the announcement on the opening of a representation was made via an annotation, Atalar declared that “this law was written so badly and hastily that a company can come and challenge the state this way.” 

“Content removal requests now come without court order”

Speaking after Atalar, journalist Gürkan Özturan started by saying that “Since 2014, the government has been working on data localization and on forcing digital media companies to set up offices.” Özturan explained that the main reason for these efforts was the attempt to enable wide censorship. He added that the fact that Sendika.Org was blocked so many times that it entered the Guinness Book of World Records, is an example for this. 

Emphasizing that access barriers to news sites via URL blocks have been applied for a long time, Özturan said: “The night after this law was passed, content removal orders were sent to many news channels. Now removal requests can even be made without a court order. The Directorate of Communications can just say: ‘We consider this content to be inappropriate under this law’.”

Even if they were “ghost” representatives, the appointment of representatives by many social media companies in Turkey would pave the way for the state to turn them into “censorship tools,” argued Özturan. “This law was passed in a hurry-scurry in the middle of the night. We have not seen the negative effects of this law and we won’t see them in the immediate future, but in the long run this law will cause an intense brain drain from Turkey,” he said. 

“We are witnessing an ‘inception-like’ situation with news blocks”

Speaking again, Atalar explained that it could not be foreseen how the law will be implemented since the representatives were only recently appointed and the companies did not designate real persons but legal entities. “Since the new law was published in the Official Gazette in July, we have seen so much news about access blocks. With news about access blocks being blocked themselves, and then these news being blocked again, we are living kind of an ‘inception-like’ situation” said Atalar.

Highlighting that most of the blocking decisions were made by the Criminal Judgeships of Peace on the grounds of violations of personal rights, Atalar declared: “There is no violation of personal rights or a situation that requires the implementation of the right to be forgotten here. These aim to prevent citizens from being informed.”

Özturan reminded that Uganda had banned all social media tools before the elections and thus concluded: “This showed us how important the internet is for the monitoring of transparency and irregularities in elections. Social media is an important tool for election security in Turkey, too.”