censorship in Turkey: access to information

Sorry I’ve been so quiet for so long – I’ve been applying for all sorts of jobs, and writing a book review, and lazy.

A couple of months ago, I discussed the production of false information and the denial of freedom of expression.

Here, I want to talk about the (closely connected) denial of access to information, literature, art, culture (1); the imposition of ignorance and orthodox thought.
The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that the Turkish state’s ‘systematic Internet censorship and [its] blocking of websites… are beyond what is necessary in a democratic society’.

Nearly all Turkish journalists confirm the censorship of media work in Turkey: the (ever greater) interference of the government and media owners, religious groups, the police, and (somewhat less than before) the military; and the media’s self-censorship.

Key links in chains of communication – like internet cafes and internet service providers (ISPs) – are squeezed or broken. However, they also censor themselves, fearing punishment for enabling (not preventing) access to officially-unapproved information.

And the problem runs even deeper than that. Students are prosecuted as terrorists for writing lists of not-yet-read books, which are freely available in bookshops, because one of the books was banned more than a decade ago; and two other books were banned by Turkey’s last military dictatorship, more than thirty years ago.

But it’s not an election issue. Many among the Turkish political classes and the public benefit from or approve of the censorship. And many others are more concerned about economic stability than social and political freedom. So it will probably get worse before it gets better.

Here, I will try to explain the national, government/state plans to filter the internet; and religious and nationalist attempts to exploit the law to further limit others’ access to information.  Then I will review the situation in terms of two controversial subjects: denial of the Armenian Genocide; and understanding of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict.

Internet filtering

The Turkish parliament has imposed an internal ban on access to LGBT/LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer (2)) websites. (The user may be given access if they officially record their name, details, and reason for wanting to visit the site.) As a parliamentary official brilliantly commented,

“Our program for Internet security automatically filters sites that contain such banned words as ‘pornography,’ ‘gambling’ and ‘homosexuality.’ There are no bans or censuring….”

Apart from the doublespeak, it is noticeable that the Turkish parliament treats reading information on the website of a human rights organisation the same as watching pornography at work.

Words are not only banned in parliament: there is a campaign to impose a ‘halal internet‘.  Six months ago, Turkey threatened to ban 138 words. There are amusing examples, including “forbidden [yasak]”; and, by extension, “moral” (because it contains the word “oral”).  These compulsory national filters have been reduced to supposedly voluntary “child” and “family” filters; and even those block not only ‘objectionable content’ but also ‘separatist propaganda‘.

The child/family filters are still serious, not “only” banning key words for pornography, but also blocking key words for sexualities unacceptable to the Islamist government/community, like “gay [gey]” and “lesbian [lezbiyen]”.  They also ban words like “rape [tecavüz]”, which may be an attempt to block violent pornography and fantasy sites; but which also prevents victims from seeking advice, support and protection.

Moreover, the filters may be voluntary in theory, but compulsory in practice. The Alternative Information Technologies Association has observed that internet service providers would not risk not imposing the ban (especially after vague threats of punishment).  Apparently, information on condoms is inaccessible.

And when I was in Turkey (when the list of banned words had been published, but not officially implemented), internet cafes already had extensive censorship. Cafe owners explained that they denied access to a wide range of sites, networks and platforms – including academic and professional ones – because, if they enabled access to that information (if they did not did not deny access to that material), they would be prosecuted.

Court bans, criminal offences and public campaigns

On top of such national policies, there are individual and institutional attempts to curtail citizens’ freedoms.  Some temporary bans are products of apolitical stupidity, like blocking the whole youtube platform for a few individuals’ copyright infringement; but there are more systematic programmes of political activity.

Often, when undesirable cultural products have been online, the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB (3)) has not only removed the product itself, or blocked the producer, uploader or host of the product; TİB has banned the site or platform where the product was found.

Religious insult is a crime in Turkey. People are charged for satirical cartoons, sarcastic dictionary definitions, even comments on social networks. Turkish nationalist, Islamist creationist Adnan Oktar/Harun Yahya has had evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ website, and the entire WordPress platform blocked in Turkey. YouTube and Google Applications have been banned for videos ‘offensive to Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’. Some journalists have joined public campaigns to censor the ‘scum‘ on the country’s biggest online discussion forum.

Challenging these powerful religious conservative and ethnic nationalist movements, the hacktivist (internet activist) collective Anonymous have made cyber attacks upon the Turkish state to protest against its national net filtering. They have taken down TİB’s own website in protest.

Genocide denial

Popular nationalist defence of the state and widespread distrust of non-ethnically Turkish/non-Muslim minorities (and limited Islamist hatred of Christians) perpetuate public and state ‘denial of the “original sin,” the act that gave birth to the Turkish nation’, the genocide of the Turkish Armenian community.

The Ottoman Empire investigated and documented the mass violence, and ‘tried, convicted, and executed’ some of those responsible for the ‘extermination of the Armenians’. The revolutionary leader who overthrew the Ottoman Empire (and became the first president of the Republic of Turkey), Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, called the massacres ‘a shameful act [fazahat]‘.

Yet all subsequent Turkish governments – all of which have been Kemalist – have ‘refused to accept the published evidence and have unsurprisingly limited access to these [Ottoman/Turkish] archives to “reliable” scholars’.

A Turkish-language Kurdish newspaper, Ülkede Özgür Gündem, reported the discovery of a mass grave from the Armenian Genocide, and Turkish military contamination of the site.  The newspaper was promptly shut down and its Gündemimiz website was blocked.

Turkish military-Kurdish paramilitary conflict

The conflict between Turkish nationalists and Kurdish nationalists is incredibly complicated; and most gruesomely visible in the war between the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK (4)) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK (5)), which has cost more than 40,000 lives.

Naturally, they struggle over public opinion. Turkish nationalists see the TSK as defenders of the nation and the state, and the PKK as terrorists. Kurdish nationalists see the PKK as defenders of the nation, and the TSK as state terrorists.

Turkish financial institutions (whose information is important for finance journalism) have boycotted Reuters, because it calls the PKK ‘rebels’ rather than “terrorists”. Apparently, those Turkish institutions ‘will not share any information with the news agency until Reuters starts using the word terrorist to refer to PKK members’; but Reuters ‘never uses the word terrorist for any group’.

It is not only an issue of freedom of expression. Turkey’s five most important news agencies have given in to Government pressure not to ‘knowingly or unknowingly’ spread ‘direct or indirect terrorist propaganda‘; not to use ‘the language, terminology, definitions or images of the terrorist organization’.

The Journalists’ Association of Turkey has defended ‘the public’s right [to] information’; but Turkish media consumers can only access half the information, from one perspective.

1: The banning of non-fiction books, for example, is a denial of both the authors’ right to free expression and the readers’ right to access information.

2: gey, lezbiyen, biseksüel, trans, eşcinsel (GLBT/GLBTE).

3: Telekomünikasyon İletişim Başkanlığı (TİB).

4: Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri.

5: Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan.

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