TURKEY BLOG: Trying to make sense of internet censorship

By bne IntelliNews September 11, 2014

David O'Byrne in Istanbul -


Surfing the Internet in Turkey has never been straightforward. The bizarrely vague Article 5651 of the Turkish penal code has over the past decade been used to ban and block thousands of sites for often obscure reasons. Access to YouTube, for example, was blocked on no less than nine times between March 2007 and June 2008 on the grounds that it contained videos insulting the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and on the more nebulous charge of "insulting Turkishness."

Those blocks were only lifted in October 2010, but YouTube was blocked again in March this year along with Twitter following the appearance of recordings of phone conversations allegedly between senior Turkish politicians, including then Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan their family members and leading business figures allegedly implying widespread corruption at the highest levels of government. Both were unblocked some months later thanks to a constitutional court ruling, despite a threat by Erdogan to "wipe out" Twitter.

Not that these bans mean much in practical terms. Tech-savvy Turks have employed tactics ranging from Google DNS settings through to the TOR browser to bypass them.

It was then of little surprise and less inconvenience when this writer noticed in early July that Issuu, the online publishing site which carries the online version of bne's flagship monthly magazine, had been blocked on June 9 under law 5651 by order of Turkey's Presidency  of Telecommunication and Communication (TIB).

Where previously a court order was required to block access to a website, amendements to that Article 5651 which were introduced in February this year gives TIB the right to block sites on an application from members of the public for any one of eight reasons defined on the body's website as:
1. Provocation for committing suicide
2. Sexual exploitation of children
3. To ease the use of drugs
4. Supplying drugs which are dangerous for health,
5. Obscenity,
6. Prostitution,
7. To provide place and opportunity for online gambling,
8. Crimes mentioned in the Law on Crimes Against Ataturk numbered 5816

However, the blocking notices don't list the precise reason for a block being imposed. So which of the eight could be the reason for blocking Issuu?

TIB itself proved to be somewhat unsure. Repeated phones calls with requests for information resulted in my finally being passed to a lawyer who informed me that my complaint had been accepted and Issuu.com would be unblocked that same day.

"I haven't made a complaint, I'm just trying to find out the reason for the block," I explained.

"Ah, I don't know why it was blocked, but it will be unblocked today," he replied.

Yet as of Thursday, September 10 Issuu remained blocked, the reason why still shrouded in mystery.

One possibility has emerged, though. Turkish English language daily Today's Zaman on September 9 published a news story claiming the block had been implemented because one of the magazines that Issuu publishes, a Swedish Christian magazine by the name of Demokrati, had published a picture on its cover depicting Erdogan aide Yusuf Yerkel kicking a mourner at the funeral in May this year of some of the 301 miners who died in the tragic Soma coal mine fire. Today's Zaman implied that the block had been implemented under new amendments to Turkey's Internet legislation, passed on September 9.

In fact, as stated above, the Issuu ban was imposed not on September 9 but on June 9, and the picture doesn't come under any of the eight categories under which a ban could be imposed without a court order.

And as similar photographs continue to be displayed on both Turkish and international news sites, none of which have been blocked in Turkey, it also doesn't appear to breach parallel legislation which allows for material deemed defamatory, or an "attack on privacy" to be blocked without a court order.

Indeed, Today's Zaman too republished the original photo with its story. But then later the same day removed both the photo and the story, presumably having been made aware that the cover of Demokrati could not be the reason for Issuu being blocked.

Turkey's internet war

While the reason for the block on issuu.com remains obscure, the reason why Today's Zaman should publish a story implying that Turkey was using draconian internet legislation to block access to material embarrassing to the Erdogan administration is easier to fathom.

Zaman group is the main media arm of Turkey's "Hizmet Movement", a fiercely insular and somewhat shady religious group which follows US-based rogue Islamist preacher Fetullah Gulen and is reckoned to have over a million "followers" or "Gulenists" in Turkey.

Although the group actively supported Erdogan in the early years of his administration, more recently it has been engaged in a veritable war of attrition with the Erdogan administration, much of it played out through the internet.

The group was blamed by the Turkish government for the appearance earlier this year of the recordings of telephone conversations between Erdogan and other senior ministers and business people that resulted in the now lifted blocks on both YouTube and Twitter.

Those leaks followed the launching by Turkish police last December of a series of highly publicised corruption probes that forced the removal of four senior government ministers.

Both Erdogan and senior ministers were quick to blame both the probes and the leaks on an illegal "parallel state" staffed by Hizmet supporters operating throughout Turkey's already "Byzantine" bureaucracy.

The past nine months has seen thousands of alleged Hizmet supporters in the police and judiciary either sacked or moved to new posts, and more than 20 police officers charged with making illegal wiretaps.

At the same time, the government has moved to curtail Hizmet's financial empire, passing legislation that will force the closure of its lucrative chain of university cramming schools from September 1, 2015, while allegedly trying to force the takeover of Hizmet's Islamic banking arm, Bank Asya. Turkey has also submitted a request to the US for the extradition of Hizmet leader Fetullah Gulen.

These moves were defended in September by Turkey's new prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who repeated allegations that Gulen was the head of an organisation trying to illegally influence the political process in Turkey. "We have the right to ask these steps be taken," he said. "Turkey's demand for Gulen's deportation is legitimate."

Whether or not the request will be taken seriously remains to be seen. But if more recent changes to Turkey's internet laws are anything to go by, the government continues to worry about the threat posed by Hizmet and other groups opposed to its increasingly authroitarian rule.

A portmanteau law passed on September 9 included clauses giving TIB further powers to block websites and monitor internet usage. In addition to being able to block sites without a court order for content deemed unsuitable, TIB now has the power to block websites temporarily without a court order if they are deemed "a threat to national security", to "prevent a crime being committed" or to "protect public order" - terms vague enough to cover pretty well anything.

Yet more draconian still are new regulations that cover internet browsing records. While the February legislation obliged ISPs to hold internet traffic data for all users for two years, the September amendments allow TIB to collect and store this data itself and to share the records with "other authorities" without a court order. These moves have already been denounced by groups such as Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which have also warned about plans announced recently by newly elected Turkish President Erdogan to abolish TIB, and to transfer its activities to Turkey's shadowy national security agency, MIT.

This is a move that might make sense in bureaucratic and national security terms, but is unlikely to make the process for finding out why apparently benign internet sites such as issuu.com remain blocked for Turkish internet users.  


TURKEY BLOG: Trying to make sense of internet censorship

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