A number of international freedom of expressions and individuals have expressed grave concerns about an Ankara Court ruling from 16 July which blocks access to 136 news sites and individual social media accounts, all expressing concern that this is the sign of a worrisome step in Turkey’s approach to online freedoms, the right to information and freedom of the press.
OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir, who visited Turkey in June when he met with head of the Parliamentary Human Rights Investigation Committee Hakan Çavuşoğlu, said he was “deeply concerned by the Ankara court order to block over 130 websites in Turkey, including much respected independent media and important resource Bianet” He called on Turkish authorities to review this decision and respect media freedom and independence.
Index on Censorship: “Reminder of how Turkey is far from being a democracy”
Director of the London-based free speech organization Index on Censorship Jodie Ginsberg said: “Index on Censorship condemns this mass blocking and urges its immediate reversal. Bianet – one of the sites targeted – has been a key source of news and information on human rights abuses in Turkey. Media freedom is the hallmark of a democracy. This latest action is another reminder of just how far from being a democracy Turkey really is.”
Article 19: “Bianet.org is a critical source on human rights.”
Head of the Europe and Central Asia division at Article19, Sarah Clarke commented that internet freedom in Turkey has already been under sustained attack from the government, recalling a recently enacted directive that puts internet media under the watchful eye of the Turkish TV and radio broadcasts RTÜK, the Supreme Board of Radio and Television.
Clarke continued: “Meanwhile a court order has resulted in the blocking of access to 136 news sites and social media accounts in Turkey, including Bianet.org, a critical source of human rights and independent journalistic information on the grounds that they pose a threat to national security. Following the shutdown of the website, more than 200,000 of its articles will be inaccessible.We stand with our colleagues at Bianet and call for the immediate review of this decision and reinstatement of the website. Turkey must enact clear laws to ensure online content is only blocked on the basis of judicial decisions, and only where it is strictly necessary and proportionate to a legitimate objective.”
Rebecca Harms: “Independent media targeted”
Former MEP Rebecca Harms, known for following freedom of expression trials in Turkey closely, commented: “The court’s decision is again completely arbitrary and shows that Turkish judges continue with unfounded rulings in spite of an announced reform of the judiciary. With the argument that authorities have to protect national security and to preserve order and peace in Turkey judges send people behind bars or shut down media. Independent media and activists struggling to guarantee at least some space for independent news are now again targeted with this ruling against Bianet and others.”
She added that international support remains crucial especially since Bianet still works and this should be defended commonly. The International Community, and I do not mean only the NGOs but also Council of Europe, European Union and also my german government must officially ask the Turkish government to continue with the pending reform of the judiciary and to return to rule of law and media freedom instead of demolishing human rights.
IPI condemns court ruling
The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) released a press statement condemning the ruling. IPI Director of Advocacy Ravi R. Prasad condemned the court order and stressed the discrepancy between this decision and Judicial Reform Strategy published in last May.
“On the one hand the government is preparing to present a Judicial Reforms Package and on the other hand it is stifling independent media in the country”, Prasad said. “The latest order is another blow to democracy and a step towards silencing independent online media denying people of Turkey their right to information.”
“Bianet should continue to freely disseminate its independent and pluralistic news”, he said.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Turkey Representative Erol Önderoğlu referred to the decision as “courageous and arbitrary.” He said: “This decision reveals the insincerity of those who have announced the Judicial Reform Strategy as good news. If this decision is to be implemented, there will be no safe online platform left for journalism.”
Hayri Tunç: International support is important
Hayri Tunç, the editor-in-chief of Gazete Fersude, which is among the news websites shut by the Ankara Court Decision said his organization had gotten the information of the coming access ban prior to the court decision being made public, and changed its domain name.
Noting that the support of press organizations and international freedom of expression groups is very important, he continued: “In such an environment where censorship has grown even further with the recent internet law, such support is important for outlets like us that are outside the government line. As we have seen in the time of mass outlet closures under State of Emergency in the past, such supports and statements of solidarity give strength to journalists like us. But it should be underlined that such support should be permanent and not temporary, and should under every circumstance and at all times.”
The ruling imposing access bans
The Ankara Criminal Judgeship of Peace on July 16, 2019,ordered 136 websites and social media accounts of Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Pinterest to be blocked upon the request of gendarmerie general command under Ministry of Interior. The order cited a law relating to “national security and preservation of order and peace in society”, however the court did not provide any further details about the reason behind closing down of websites. Access to Bianet.org is still in place, but if it is indeed blocked, at least 200,000 news reports that have appeared on the website which has been around for nearly two decades will be impossible to access.