Turkey is to implement new regulations on all online broadcasters which many commentators believe are likely to be the precursor to a stepping-up of the countries draconian online censorship.
The new regulations which will be implemented by the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), the Turkish government’s media regulator, were published this week in Turkey’s Official Gazette.
Internet censorship stepped up
In broad terms, they require all online media content providers to obtain a broadcast license from the RTÜK. Those that don’t are likely to be taken down or blocked.
The RTÜK will be able to demand fees for the licenses and those that are deemed to have broken the strict rules imposed under the licences will either be fined or face their license being either suspended for a period of at least three months or revoked altogether.
An analysis of the new regulations has suggested that it is even possible that the new regulations could affect internet users outside the country. According to international law firm Baker McKenzie, the new regulations will apply to any site that “broadcast internet content in Turkish aimed at persons in Turkey.”
For those familiar with Turkey’s recent political history, this is clearly aimed at the Gülen movement of exiled Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. He is currently living in the USA but has been blamed, along with his supporters, for the recent failed coup against the current regime.
What do these new regulations mean?
The likely impact these new regulations could have on the spread of information in Turkey could be profound. The Reuters Institute estimates that as many as 40% of Turkish people get the majority of their news online.
The internet also provides a vital platform for opposition activists and human rights campaigners in Turkey to get their messages out. Mainstream media outlets are already heavily censored and controlled by the regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
For those who don’t accept the regime’s propaganda, there is the option to use VPNs to access content that is blocked in the country.
The other option is to rely on non-mainstream media such as blogs as well as content on social media and platforms like YouTube. Many Turkish journalists have taken to creating their own blogs and websites to post news that cannot get published elsewhere. This new ‘licensing regime’ is likely to target all of these.
As Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Istanbul Bilgi University and a leading expert in online censorship in Turkey has said to Voice of America, the new rules are “not a licensing regime, it’s a censorship regime.”
“This is what happens in Turkey,” he added. “We are talking about the country which blocks access to the Wikipedia platform for over two years,” he said.
Legal challenges and enforcement issues
The new regulations are not on the statute book yet and it is inevitable that they will face legal challenges of one kind or another.
One Turkish non-profit, The Media and Law Studies Association has indicated it will mount a challenge. Veysel Ok, their co-director has highlighted the lack of clarity in the new regulations as a major issue.
“There are also no standards as to what constitutes a news platform and what doesn’t, as the language used in the text is too ambiguous,” he explained. In other words, the RTÜK will essentially have the power under the new laws to define almost anything as a news outlet and therefore subject it to licensing and censorship.
It has also been suggested that streaming platforms such as Netflix could also fall victim to the new rules and be required to implement excessive online censorship as well as license itself before it is allowed to operate in Turkey.
It is no coincidence that the new regulations emerged shortly after Islamist daily Karar columnist Akif Beki attacked Netflix for promoting homosexuality over a series that was made available in Turkey. Netflix has confirmed that they are monitoring developments.
It is also not clear how the RTÜK will enforce the new regulations in practice. Will it be a simple blocking of access to non-compliant sites through the countries compliant, state-controlled ISPs? Or will the penalties meted out be more brutal?
It is worth noting that Turkey has the highest number of journalists in jail of any country in the world, according to Reporters Sans Frontiers.
Given Turkey’s skewed legal system it seems unlikely that any legal challenges will succeed which means Turkish internet users must brace themselves for the worst.
Online censorship seems likely to get a great deal worse in Turkey soon. Fortunately, they will always have VPNs available to enable them to access the internet freely.