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Turkey bans independent news sites in latest move to silence opposition

Following a new law restricting the online news media, a court order blocking 136 websites and social media accounts has highlighted the shrinking space for oppositional voices in Turkey.
People use computers at an internet cafe in Ankara February 6, 2014. Turkey's parliament, where Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party has a majority, has approved internet controls enabling web pages to be blocked within hours in what the opposition decried as part of a government bid to stifle a corruption scandal with methods more suitable to "times of coups". Under a bill passed late on Wednesday, telecommunications authorities can block access to material within four hours without a prior court order

Independent journalist Hayri Tunc first noticed his news site Gazete Fersude was blocked on July 18.

He had been running the small alternative news outlet on personal funds for about a year with a team of five editors and 15 contributors. It was one of several news sites founded to fill a coverage gap left by the shuttering of nearly 200 news outlets since a 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Media freedoms have been stifled as ongoing legal proceedings have landed at least 138 Turkish journalists behind bars, according to the press monitor Platform24.

Tunc said he wasn’t notified before Fersude was blocked on Turkish servers. In the past, he received court orders regarding specific articles that would result in legal proceedings if not removed from the website. Lacking the finances to hire a lawyer, Tunc usually complied to keep the publication operating.

“We try not to challenge those requests because we’re a small outlet,” Tunc told Al-Monitor. “Is it compliance to remove content? Not really. If even one person reads our content, it’s powerful. You get the information out.”

Despite such efforts, Tunc and his editorial team eventually received a court order on July 25 that banned his and 135 other websites and social media accounts. He said he shared the document with colleagues, but it was dismissed as a rumor, causing little initial reaction. Tunc responded by simply changing his site’s address from .com to .net and proceeded with his daily news coverage.

“With censorship, you have no choice but to find your way around it,” he said.

The status quo remained intact until yesterday, when the same court order was published widely in the Turkish press, sparking rebukes from media organizations and free speech advocates who claim the space for the nation’s oppositional voices has been steadily shrinking in recent years.

The ban comes after a state-funded institution published a report accusing foreign media outlets of bias in their Turkish-language coverage, and a new law was enacted requiring state-issued licenses from web streaming services and online news broadcasters operating in the country.

“These procedures seem to contribute to a major policy, to a major attempt to destroy the pluralistic nature of the media and civil society organizations,” Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative for Reporters Without Borders, told Al-Monitor.

The Turkish Ministry of Justice did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.

Dated July 16, the court order blocks the websites and social media accounts of organizations and individuals critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party under Article 8a of Law no. 5651, which defends “the right to life, national security and protection of public order.”

Among individual Twitter accounts listed in the ban is that of Oya Ersoy, a member of parliament representing Istanbul for the Peoples’ Democratic Party. Ersoy said employing the article against media outlets and dissident voices is unconstitutional, and she has already opened legal proceedings against the court order.

“This whole thing is dictatorship, it’s fascism, there’s no other way to define it,” Ersoy told Al-Monitor. “This is a violation of the constitution, not just because of freedom of speech, but also because I have parliamentary immunity. My accounts cannot be silenced this way.”

Noting Ankara's 3rd Penal Court of Peace had executed the order upon request from the Gendarmerie General Command, Turkey’s rural police force, Ersoy said the judges “acted more like notaries” by approving the ban without providing legal reasoning or evidence of criminal activity.

One of the largest media organizations listed in the court order is Bianet, an alternative news website founded in 2000 that receives 20 million unique visitors a year. With more than 200,000 articles in Turkish, Kurdish and English, the site remains accessible for the time being. It has never faced a comparable ban, according to Evren Gonul, a coordinator for the Independent Communication Network, the non-profit running the news site. A report published Wednesday evening indicated Bianet might have been included in the banned sites list by accident.

“For at least 10 years, we have been regularly receiving court orders concerning individual permalinks for individual news reports,” Gonul told Al-Monitor.

The organization, which employs an in-house lawyer, normally takes such complaints to the Constitutional Court and wins, citing freedom of expression rights protected under Turkish law, Gonul said. Yet if the latest court decision is implemented, Gonul said the Turkish public will lose access to a 19-year archive of human rights-focused journalism.

“If the court order is executed, we will be losing a very encouraging example of an independent media organization,” Gonul said. “If we lose this, we will not be surprised when we lose another news site. This will have a long-term psychological impact on society.”

In a statement shared with Al-Monitor, Bianet editors said the latest court ruling contradicts a judicial reform package introduced by Erdogan this June that stated Turkey’s Information and Communication Technologies Authority would first block access to individual news report URLs before shutting down an entire website.

Several of the websites listed in the court order, including Gazete Fersude, have already been blocked. No date was given for when all the sites on the list will be blocked.

Tunc said he has grown accustomed to operating under such conditions after working for various news organizations that were shuttered by court rulings.

“Turkish society always finds a way to break through these obstructions,” Tunc told Al-Monitor. “Think of state of emergency rule. Many papers and TV channels were shut down and they found new areas to spread news."

He added, “This new legal decision, it could have an impact in the short term, but in the long term, people in Turkey will find a way to get their news.”

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