Access? What the heck for?

Today’s Zaman, your gateway to Turkish news: “Access? What the heck for? By YAVUZ BAYDAR, 20.06.2008

These days, wherever you turn, you face the judiciary. In a restless, expanding and opening ‘young’ Turkey, sadly mismanaged, the only way to regain some form of old-fashioned control goes either through loopholes or ambiguous formulations in law and misinterpretations thereof by the judiciary. Those who insist that a ‘slow-motion coup’ is already under way claim to find new evidence every day.

Unfortunately, Turks are unable to chase away fear. Those who seek freedom are frightened by those who fear that freedom will bring instability. Ragıp Zarakolu is a tough-minded publisher of books. A leftist, a human rights activist and the owner of Belge Publishing House, Zarakolu focused on books about the late Ottoman Empire, particularly on the mass deportations and killings of Ottoman Armenians in 1914 and 1915, in the last decade of the empire. Needless to say, he was charged many times and was acquitted in most of them. When the infamous Article 301 was discussed, his name often popped up in the cases mentioned.

Up until three days ago, there was relative relief in Turkey and elsewhere that, after the recent amendments, Turkey would not see new indictments on ‘insulting Turkishness’ or prison sentences handed down in such cases. This relief did not last long.

After a lengthy trial, Zarakolu was sentenced to four months in prison (converted to fines). The reason for the verdict was what the court found to be ‘insults to Turkishness’ in a book by George Jerjian, titled ‘The Truth Will Set Us Free.’ This has naturally ignited a new debate. Weren’t the changes to the law supposed to work retroactively? The ‘changed’ Article 301 makes it compulsory for prosecutors to seek the approval of the Ministry of Justice to file lawsuits against people. Zarakolu’s lawyers say the verdict proves the changes were only cosmetic, while the court says there was no need to seek approval because the case had been initiated before Turkey approved the changes.

You can almost hear people engaged in expanded freedom in Turkey sigh in desperation as the legal experts say that, if brought to the European Court of Human Rights, Turkey will once again be found on the wrong side of justice.

By now many observers have become convinced that both the legislation and the law enforcement in Turkey are experts at creating ‘legal knots’ that place the country unjustly amongst the most repressive places in the world. The most spectacular issue for some time now has been YouTube. There is certainly more than that. A hasty and badly formulated Internet Law is causing a lot of headache and misery for the users here, while it gives a large playground for prosecutors and judges to ban access to Web sites and blogs. Hundreds of sites (over 320) have been blocked since January, and Turkey has succeeded in placing itself amongst the ranks of China, Thailand and Pakistan, as an ‘Internet hater.’ Turkish authorities often ban sites without even informing the site owners and without giving them the chance to defend themselves.

Also, Today’s Zaman reported yesterday: ‘The Ankara’s Prosecutor’s Office has sought to expand the scope of this ban by having a worldwide access ban placed on videos deemed offensive by Turkish authorities. Indeed, a person living in Turkey can access censured sites by changing their computer’s proxy settings. Turkish prosecutors also want videos considered insulting to Atatürk to be erased altogether. In order to do this, they want YouTube to open a representative office in Turkey, obtain a security and authorization certificate, all required licenses and become a taxpayer under Turkish law. YouTube officials have no intention of opening such a branch. They say YouTube was not established in Turkey and is not subject to Turkish law.’

Ankara press prosecutor Nadi Türkaslan insists that YouTube will not be ‘reopened’ unless ‘the insults against Atatürk, religion, the Turkish flag and the Turkish army are lifted from the global databases of YouTube.’ This reflects only the strong and persistent desire of the authorities to maintain the lack of access to the flow of information on the Internet. There are also concerning claims coming in that Turkish authorities are putting Google under ‘severe pressure’ to share its information and the e-mail passwords of all users in Turkey. One certainly expects Google to clarify that.

The headache must have become unbearable. For two days, state authorities met with legal experts, NGOs, Web site owners and telecom representatives to discuss this troubling practice. An agreement seems to have been reached that the authorities must inform the banned sites about the decision and ask for the removal of the content in question. If the material is not removed, only access to the specific content (and, not, as is the practice now, the entire website) will be blocked.

Can we be optimistic about this agreement? Given the law and the mentality of the law enforcers, I have to remain pessimistic.

On the contrary, I expect a hardening of the climate because of the political situation. The Internet has become an important and feared tool in the free flow of ideas, and ‘control freaks’ will stretch the law beyond its limits in the totalitarian hope that the likes of YouTube and Google will give in to pressure in the end.