Turkey: New regulation and website blocks mark further assault on online freedoms

ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned by new online censorship measures in Turkey, which have in the last week seen dozens of additional websites blocked and additional powers given to the government regulator over online content providers. In the context of Turkey’s already deeply repressive regime and restrictions on the exercise of fundamental freedoms, these moves put at risk any remaining space for freedom of expression and access to information in the country. We urge the Turkish government to revoke these decisions, which stand in clear violation of the Turkish Constitution and international human rights standards.

On 1 August 2019, a regulation was published requiring all online content providers, including online streaming services such as YouTube and Netflix, and online news sites, to obtain a license from the government controlled state television and radio regulator, RTÜK. This regulation makes RTÜK responsible for monitoring their online content, and requires content providers to abide by RTÜK’s unspecified standards or face revocation of their license and blocking of their platforms. The regulation will also be applicable to platforms based outside the country, meaning it provides unprecedented control over access to information online in Turkey.

Given the already tight grip exercised over independent media by Turkish authorities, it is likely such a regulation will simply serve to enable the government to censor news and broadcasting offering alternative viewpoints or which is critical of the current regime. Many broadcasters in Turkey had previously moved more towards online streaming after increasing restrictions by RTÜK on broadcast media. Expanding its regulatory powers to online services is therefore part of expanding efforts to silence media freedom.

In addition to this, on 6 August 2019, the Ankara 3rd Penal Court of Peace approved an order to block 136 Internet resources, on the basis of a police request made on 16 July 2019. The initial order had included the human rights and independent journalism site, Bianet.org, although this was subsequently annulled. The other 135 internet sites remain blocked.

“Internet freedom in Turkey, already under sustained attack from the government, has suffered two major blows this week, severely endangering what little space remains for critical voices and independent media in the country. In the first, the Turkish authorities in effect brought all online content providers under government control, in the second, further blocking access to vital sources of human rights information and journalistic reporting”, said Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19.“Taken together, these actions are a fatal blow to online freedoms in Turkey, and a clear sign that the Turkish authorities have disregarded commitments on human rights protections”.

The website blockages cover 14 websites and dozens of social media accounts, and include various media outlets. The blockages were apparently on the grounds that they pose a threat to national security, an excuse frequently used by the Turkish government in its attacks on independent media, although no evidence to support these claims was provided. OSCE Representative on Media Freedom, Harlem Desir, has called for the government to urgently reverse the blockages.

“ARTICLE 19 stands with colleagues at the affected human rights and media organisations. We welcome the annulment of the decision to block Bianet, which would have been a significant affront to human rights reporting and broader media freedom, and we demand the immediate revocation of the rest of the blocking orders. The orders are blatant violations of the right to freedom of expression, which States are bound to protect both online and offlineadded Clarke.

Internet freedoms in Turkey are already severely restricted, as documented by ARTICLE 19 in our 2019 submission to the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review mechanism. The 2007 Internet Law No. 5651, and subsequent 2015 amendments, have provided the government broad powers to block online content, and a further emergency decree transferred significant power to the executive to block content without judicial oversight. Wikipedia has been blocked in the country since 2017, and the Turkish government makes more requests for content take down from Twitter on the basis of national laws than any other country in the world.

Turkey must reform or repeal existing laws, including the Internet Law, 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, and must revoke these latest unlawful blockages. We further urge states in the EU and elsewhere to increase pressure on Turkey to abide by its human rights commitments, and not allow the continued destruction of human rights, online and offline, in the country.