Atatürk's Republic

Following Turkish News, Politics, Arts and Culture

Institutionalized Censorship

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Update: Since posting this, President Gul has signed the internet bill into law.

Censorship is its own institution in Turkey.  More specifically, media censorship operates through multiple institutions and is pervasive to the point that it has been internalized by individual journalists.  The current government’s illiberal attitude toward both traditional and new media is not rooted in their brand of conservative, Islamic-inspired ideology but in Turkey’s tradition of state paternalism.  It is perpetuated through cultural norms and, under this government, through the entanglement of media with businesses, particularly construction and banking, a situation that provides ample incentive for media companies to remain in the government’s good graces.

Even before Gezi brought it international attention, media censorship was an everyday, open reality in Turkey.  Anyone who has spent more than a week in the country will have encountered the bizarre phenomenon of flowers covering cigarettes on TV or a message warning you that a website has been blocked by the government.  Turks put up with and even expected the government to institute censorship.  Hence Erdogan’s recent nonchalant admission that he personally requested that a television station cut references to a statement made by an opposition member of parliament during the Gezi protests.

However, within the past year attitudes have been changing.  The Gezi protests were a turning point in both Turkish citizens’ and the Turkish government’s relationship with censorship.  The extent of government bias in media was laid bare in the infamous penguin incident on Turkish television and the fight against censorship pulled into the mix of eclectic grievances expressed by the Gezi protesters.  Simultaneiously, the use of social media during the course of the protests exposed the internet as the weak point in the government’s control of information.

As Turkish citizens called for a freer press, the government sought to plug the dike of social media.  Their initial tactic was to prosecute citizens for online speech.  However, the failure of this tactic has been laid bare in the wake of the graft scandal which hit the country December 17.  As the government fought to contain the extent of the corruption probe, leaks began springing online.  Videos and voice recordings purporting to show government officials engaged in corruption began spreading via social media.  The new internet bill aims to contain these leaks.  The current protocol for blocking a website or removing a piece of information posted online requires a court order.  In the time it takes to procure such an order, items posted online, such as the leaks related to the corruption probe, have time to go viral.  The new internet censorship law would cut out the requirement for a court order, allowing the government to censor online information at will.  The law also requires that internet service providers store data from their customers for two years so that the government can search the internet history of users for nefarious activity.

If President Gul signs this bill into law (he has until the 25th of this month to do so), it will be a huge blow to free speech in Turkey.  Despite pre-existing government censorship, the internet was the freest platform for communication in Turkey.  However if, or more likely when, the law goes into effect, it will not be the death of the internet in Turkey.  The internet as a constantly expanding and changing system, free of political borders, and its dynamics will always be on the side of those who wish to spread information rather than contain it.  Unless the internet is completely taken out of play, users will find creative ways to work around any government that tries to constrain it.

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