I spent an amazing morning with friends observing the Anzac Day commemorations of the many young soldiers who perished over the Gallipoli peninsula during WWI following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. As I prepare for my trip to Turkey in a few months time to film my next documentary, I came to learn more about the difficulties many journalists and filmmakers face in the country.
There has indeed been a great deal of political polarisation and tension in Turkey over the last decade, especially with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) who have been viewed as attempting to bring back an Islamic Ottoman Centralism. There is an underlying current that murmurs sentiments that the AKP party has been intentionally destroying the freedoms designed by Ataturk and enforcing state control over the media, obvious with local and international journalists who have been arrested.
“There has been state influence on journalists in Turkey for decades, but the situation has deteriorated, in three ways, since the AKP won second term in 2007… by abusing the legal framework to criminalize Kurdish journalists, by instrumentalizing a major political investigation – Ergenekon – to prosecute dissenting journalists, and by exploiting its economic relationships with media conglomerates to engender self-censorship in the press.”
International and domestic human rights organisations claim that freedom of expression and human rights have been continuously undermined by clear domination of the State who promote social cohesion through fear and nationalism. Rooted in the current legal and political framework, not only is it clearly visible that political elites exercise a formulation of ownership policy that manufactures independence and sincerity to pacify sceptics, Turkish media laws are also marked by a historical relationship with censorship policy that illustrates a continuation of civic suspicions.
Attention around the absence of Internet laws was realised in 1998 with the prosecution of 18-year-old Emre Ersöz, who mistakenly criticised the national police for the extreme and unnecessary violence against a group of blind protestors. The charge itself was for “[p]ublicly insulting state security forces” on a Turkish forum Turknet and he was prosecuted with a suspended sentence of ten months imprisonment under Article 159 of the Turkish Penal Code. Article 159 could at the time imprison for up to six years for publicly denigrating Turkishness.
While Article 301 made a series of changes from Article 159, the ambiguity of the language and the uncertainty surrounding the interpretation of the clauses did not modify the potentially detrimental impact the code had on human rights and freedoms. Claudia Roth, the vice-president of the German-Turkish Inter-parliamentary Friendship Group and Germany’ Greens politician stated that the death of Armenian-Turkish Journalist Hrant Dink is linked to Article 301 of the Turkish Penal code, as the latter strengthens nationalism.
Nationalism, freedom of expression and human rights have remained key issues vis-à-vis Turkey’s democratisation process, with remnants of the past, global culture and modernisation together with religion, civic and ethnic nationalisms all playing a role in the popular attitudes and mobility – or lack thereof – of the population.
On one end, there certainly does appear a risk to security with the continued conflict of ideological positions between ethnic and religious groups that unlike more liberal and democratic countries where such freedom of expression could have little direct impact or consequence, the risk of violence in Turkey appears to be much higher. For instance, the Sivas Massacre found 35 dead after Islamic Salafists set fire to a hotel where Alevi intellectuals were holding a cultural festival, one such intellectual purporting to have organised a discussion on the Satanic verses by Salman Rushdie.
The Sivas Massacre in 1993 – where police and fire brigades that were at the scene during the incident, did little to protect, prevent or assist – highlights the impact and the risk public communication has in Turkey and the lack of human right commitments at a social and cultural level. Censorship can in addition also ensure that young people are not exposed to content or information that could be detrimental to their wellbeing, that racial vilification and hate speech is controlled as well as reduce crimes such as violations of copyright laws, rampant spamming and other security concerns.
In the case of Gündüz V Turkey at the European Court of Human Rights, Müslüm Gündüz campaigned on live television for the implementation of Sharia laws and criticised secularism, with the court finding it favour of Gündüz (under article 10 of the convention) defending Sharia without inciting violence cannot be considered hate speech, his criminal conviction of two years imprisonment under Turkish law thus in violation of ECHR. The margins of defending Sharia, which is known for intolerance and having the potential impact of inciting violence and hatred expresses the difficulty of ascertaining what justifies as hate speech according to the history and culture of a country like Turkey.
The Gezi Park Protests in Istanbul that caused domestic and international outrage for the brutality against peaceful protesters was a story rarely mentioned by broadcasters in Turkey. Prior to the enactment of internet censorship Law No. 5651, media reports on child pornography was sweeping that some claim was intentional to ensure support for the law, as it “came across as an orchestrated effort.” In addition, there are growing concerns at the censorship and restrictions against journalists and a liberal and independent media, with many journalists losing their jobs amid political pressure and yet others being arrested or targeted in arbitrary prosecutions under anti-terrorism legislation [Law 3713].
The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) have been noted to place pressure on channels that are critical against the government and Turkey’s major broadcaster TRT is known for remaining one-sided and propagandist toward the AKP. CNN Turkey 5N1K program terminated journalist Murat Aksoy’ position, for instance, following his comment that the AKP should investigate corruption. In 2000, the Telecommunications Authority under Law No. 4502 was established due to local and international pressure to liberalise the telecommunications industry, however legal provisions expose a failure to safeguard independence and political interference, which is clearly visible with the provision that purports members of the board are appointed by the council of ministers.
During this period, a draft bill attempting to regulate internet publications by including it under the same umbrella of legal restrictions that was already governing television broadcasting, print media and radio had risen to the fore and while controversy arose during this period, by 2002 amendments to Law No. 4676 were passed that included regulations vis-à-vis internet publications. The monopoly between the state, private media companies and the economic value media has neglected to focus on interests of the public or human rights and freedoms.
By 2007, Law No. 5651 on the Regulation of Publications on the Internet and Suppression of Crimes Committed by means of such publications came to force and access to sites – including Youtube – were consequently blocked or regulated. The law itself provided a catalogue of crimes along with the legal and procedural framework during the investigation and consequent banning of a website, attempting to work within the configuration of the Budapest Convention of Cybercrime, an international treaty that attempts to regulate internet and computer crime (only signed by Turkey in 2014).
The catalogue of crimes include the Incitement to suicide (TCK-84), sexual abuse of children (TCK-103), facilitation of the use of narcotics (TCK-190), provision of substances harmful to health (TCK-194), obscenity (TCK-226), prostitution (TCK-227), facilitation of gambling (TCK-228), crimes against Ataturk (Law 5816 for defamation as defined in Article 125 of Turkish Criminal Law) and gambling (under sports law). In addition, Turkey’s Telecommunications Directorate [TIB] was granted the authority to block access to websites without a court order and the scope of what and the reasons behind the banning has not been publically or adequately supplied.
In 2014, amendments to Law No. 5651 was ratified primarily because of the outpour of discontent across Turkey during the Gezi Park protests. It was in the same year that Erdogan vowed to eradicate Twitter, what he referred to as a “menace” to society and such discourse parallels the AKP political ideology of power and legitimacy to ensure harsher regulations against social networking and a faster process to ban web content.
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