Turkey criticized for blocking access to websites

Turkey criticized for blocking access to websites

By Yigal Schleifer Oct 9, 2009, 2:08 GMT

Istanbul – For Turkish internet users, it’s an image that’s becoming increasingly familiar: at many websites, instead of a homepage, what they find is a short notice telling them the site has been blocked by order of law.

YouTube, the popular video sharing website, has been blocked since May of last year after amateurish clips mocking Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s founder, were posted on the site. More recently, Turkey’s two largest gay community web sites were blocked, after authorities accused them of promoting prostitution.

Critics and freedom of expression advocates are accusing the Turkish government of online censorship and of using a heavy-handed approach, which allows for entire websites to be blocked because of a small number of offending items.

‘This is very similar locking down a complete library just because there is a single book that is illegal. That is unacceptable,’ says Yaman Akdeniz, an associate professor of law at Istanbul’s Bilgi University and co-founder of Cyber-Rights. Org, an internet civil liberties organization.

‘There is a democratization process in Turkey, and censorship is unacceptable to that process,’ Akdeniz added.

Legislation passed in 2007, intended to prevent access to primarily pornographic and obscene web content, gave the Turkish state broad powers to control web usage.

The newly created Telecommunications Communication Presidency (TIB), a government office that monitors the Internet, is allowed to shut down websites without a court order if it decides that a site is in violation of the law.

Last year, the Directorate blocked access to some 1,000 websites. As of May, when TIB last gave figures on its activity, the agency has blocked access to 2,600 websites.

‘The whole process lacks transparency and openness. In most cases you don’t know why a website has been blocked and there is no clear appeals process,’ says Akdeniz.

‘These websites are judged by a few people working at the directorate, rather than a court of law.’

Access to the two gay community websites, gabile. com and hadigayri. com, was blocked on October 2 without any warning from TIB. Supporters of the sites, which together have approximately 225,000 users, said they believe they were unfairly targeted.

‘These sites are mainly used by people to meet each other and they give news about (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) issues in Turkey,’ says Ismael Alacaoglu, project coordinator at KAOS-GL, an Ankara-based Gay and Lesbian organization.

‘We are concerned about them being blocked. It’s a kind of violence against freedom of expression. There are very few places in Turkey where gay people can gather and meet each other, and these two websites are among them.’

A TIB spokesperson rejected the claim that the action taken against gabile. com and hadigayri. com constituted a threat to freedom of expression.

‘If the subject that is expressed constitutes a crime, measures are taken particularly to protect young people, minors and families against such negative content,’ the spokesperson said in an email.

‘The method applied in Turkey is also recommended and shown as an example by the EU to its Member States; we can proudly say that we have a pioneering position in this field,’ the spokesperson added.

But an EU official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that Brussels actually intends to raise the issue of internet controls as one of the ‘points of concern’ in the upcoming regular progress report on Turkey’s bid to join the bloc, which will be issued October 14.

Clothilde Le Coz, an official with the Paris-based advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, says the organization is debating whether to add Turkey to its list of countries that are ‘Internet Enemies.’

The list currently includes Cuba, Iran and North Korea, among several other countries that severely restrict internet access.

‘We are very concerned about the situation in Turkey,’ says Le Coz. (dpa)