A New Episode in Turkey’s Censorship Regime

August 28, 2023
by Haşim Tekineş, published on 28 August 2023
A New Episode in Turkey’s Censorship Regime

Turkey’s tightening censorship regime continues to challenge its relations with the western countries. The Turkish authorities, last week, gave 72 hours for Voice of America (VOA) Türkçe and Deutsche Welle (DW) Türkçe to register as an internet broadcaster. Otherwise, they will either stop their activities or their administrative boards will face imprisonment in Turkey. Washington and Ankara want to configure their relationship on a transactional basis, but as Turkey’s authoritarian practices deepen, Turkey’s authoritarian drift continues to be a challenge for Turkish-American relations.

In February 2022, Turkey’s Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTUK) gave VOA Türkçe, DW Türkçe, and Euronews 72 hours to apply for a broadcasting license. RTUK later exempted Euronews from the license as the latter re-arranged its website content according to the regulations. Yet, VOA Türkçe and DW Türkçe rejected applying for license on the grounds that the license will enable a censorship regime over their editorial policy. In June 2022, RTUK blocked access to both networks. Yolanda Lopez, VOA director, depicted the license policy as ‘thinly veiled effort to censor unfavorable press coverage.’

RTUK’s latest notice to both agencies includes a threat of imprisonment too. Although RTUK does not state this openly, the regulation that it cites in its notice stipulates imprisonment for the managers if the outlets continue their broadcasting despite the ban.

The US reaction is so far restrained. According to VOA, a State Department official said that they are concerned about the decision. But if the Turkish government implements the procedure, it will be a new test for the Turkish-American relations after both sides caught a positive vibe after the latest NATO Summit in Vilnius. President Erdogan reiterated his will to normalize relations with the western countries. Nevertheless, Turkey’s deteriorating authoritarianism will continue to challenge the relations.

Turkey’s New Social Media Act

The Turkish government directly or indirectly owns nearly 95% of the media outlets in Turkey. Yet, as a growing industry, digital media poses growing danger for the government’s censorship regime. In 2019, the Turkish government passed a new law that makes broadcasting license compulsory and facilitates RTUK’s control over digital content. Last year, the government passed a new regulation to tighten its control over digital media platforms. The new regulation introduces additional obligations for the digital media and grants broad powers to the authorities. Accordingly, employees of the platforms may receive imprisonment if they share ‘fake news’ that threatens ‘public peace’ by spreading panic and fear. The vagueness of the regulation removes any legal assurance that can protect free speech and journalists. Likewise, the authorities will be able to close any digital news outlet if it does not comply with courts’ broadcast ban within two weeks. Broadcast ban is a common practice that Turkish courts use to censor any news that harms President Erdogan’s or his government’s interests.

More importantly, the regulation makes having a representative or headquarter in Turkey obligatory. This enables the Turkish authorities to exert more pressure on international media networks and compels them to cooperate. Although the Turkish government is capable of preventing access to platforms like YouTube and Twitter, it harms Ankara’s image and its relations with the EU and the US. In Summer 2013, Twitter was the primary mobilizing tool for demonstrators who protested the construction of a mosque in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. In 2014, audio recordings, shared at YouTube, implicated Erdogan with corruption. In another audio recording, top security officials of the Erdogan government conspired to legitimize Turkey’s cross-border operations to Syria through a false flag operation. Following these incidents, the Turkish government banned access to those platforms, but these bans tarnished Erdogan’s international image and strained Turkey’s relations with the western countries. Thus, instead of closing these platforms, with the new regulation, the Turkish government aims to establish more discreet pressure on the digital media to remove ‘undesirable content.’

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