Amid fading hopes of EU membership, there are increasing signs that the Turkish authorities are tightening restrictions on freedom of speech.
A new set of regulations for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) published in the Turkish Official Gazette on November 1, 2007, makes it compulsory for all commercial ISPs to take measures to prevent access to “illegal content” and use government-approved filters to block users from visiting undesirable websites. In addition, all commercial ISPs are now obliged to record details of all the websites visited by their subscribers and store the data for a period of at least one year.
The new regulations have caused outrage in the Turkish ISP community, which has described them as not only limiting freedom of expression but, also as a gross violation of privacy.
“Turkey is becoming a police state,” complained Mehmet Ali Koksal, a member of the board of Turkish Information Technology Association (TBD) (Milliyet, November 11).
But the new requirements have received little coverage in the mainstream Turkish media, with the result that few Turks are aware that they are now effectively under surveillance each time they access the Internet.
Turkish ISPs were already obliged to prevent access to a number of websites specifically outlawed by a ruling of a Turkish court. Almost all of the websites already banned are associated with either the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), such as the website of the Firat news agency, which is closely affiliated with the organization, or extremist leftist groups. Significantly, all of the banned websites are associated with views that oppose official Turkish ideology rather than, for example, explicitly incite violence. Hard-line Turkish nationalist websites, including those that call for the murder of liberal intellectuals such as the novelist Orhan Pamuk, have not been outlawed.
Since March 2007 the owners of Internet cafes have been responsible for ensuring that the computers on their premises are not used to access “illegal sites.” But monitoring the Internet traffic of an individual required a specific order from a judge, similar to the one required for a telephone tap. However, under the new ISP regulations, all subscribers to Internet services in Turkey will have their Internet traffic monitored and recorded as a matter of course.
The new ISP regulations are merely the latest development in a disturbing trend toward a re-imposition of the draconian restrictions on privacy and freedom of expression that were once common in Turkey. Up until the late 1980s it was forbidden to mail audiocassettes out of the country on the grounds that they might contain state secrets, while mail to foreigners living in Turkey was opened, read, stamped, and resealed in a plastic bag as a matter of course. Many of the restrictions were eased in the run-up to Turkey initiating accession negotiations with the EU in October 2005. However, over the last two years, as hopes of full membership have begun to fade, the authorities have once again begun to increase restrictions on freedom of expression most notoriously through the use of Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which makes it illegal to criticize “Turkishness” – a perhaps deliberately vague term that has been interpreted as including anything related to Turkish history or the country’s laws and institutions.
The EU insists that the abolition of Article 301 is a prerequisite for Turkish accession. In the wake of further criticism of the article in the European Commission’s annual Progress Report on Turkey’s EU candidacy that was released on November 6, Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin promised that the government would soon introduce the necessary legal amendments (Yeni Safak, November 7). However, he subsequently announced that the article would be merely amended not abolished as the EU insists (NTV, November 14).
The use of Article 301 to prosecute of high-profile intellectuals — such as Orhan Pamuk, his fellow novelist Elif Safak and the murdered Turkish-Armenian journalists Hrant Dink — has attracted international attention. However, many other less prominent individuals continue to face persecution and prosecution. Over recent months, not only has the use of judicial sanctions increased, but it has also become increasingly petty.
In March 2007 the Turkish courts temporarily blocked all access to the You Tube website to prevent Turks watching a clip posted by a Greek nationalist that claimed, without any convincing evidence, that the republic’s late founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was homosexual. On November 14, a youth in the southeast city of Diyarbakir was arrested on charges of separatist propaganda after posting a video clip on You Tube showing local Kurds celebrating the Kurdish New Year of Newroz. Other recent cases include the launching of a judicial investigation against seven teachers in the western province of Edirne after some of the entries in a student essay competition allegedly insulted the Ottoman sultans (Anadolu Ajans, November 10). On November 9, a judicial investigation was initiated against a 17 year-old girl who, while doodling in a school textbook, drew a clown’s hat on a picture of Ataturk (Radikal, November 15).
These latest restrictions certainly are not in keeping with the openness required by the European Union.