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No sex, slang or booze: Turkish state is watching

New regulations requiring government oversight for online content are narrowing Turks' media world even further.

Have you heard of the show "3Below: Tales of Arcadia?" It's an animated children’s program on Netflix. In its second season, there is an episode where two preteens, both girls, talk about kissing and finally share a kiss. The scene became a burning issue for Turkey's pro-government media outlets in the last week of July. The coverage included censored images of the cartoon characters kissing.

Even before the episode aired, Islamist Yeni Akit newspaper was worried about the “trap of Netflix’s immorality.” It named several popular Netflix shows and even cartoons, calling them propaganda by perverts. 

Turkish audiences are becoming all too familiar with blurred images, blocked-out words deemed inappropriate by the authorities and deleted scenes of anything remotely sex related. For example, one popular story is about Behzat C, a detective who loves his booze. It aired on Turkish TVs with lots of blurs for alcoholic beverages and bleeps for questionable language — which means most of the show was censored. Finally, the show's management said it would post the uncensored version on its website. The uncut versions of several sitcoms appear on YouTube, where they get more views than they did on TV.

The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK), whose powers have just been extended beyond radio and television, controls all media output in Turkey. On Aug. 1, the Turkish Official Gazette published long-expected regulations placing the RTUK in charge of online streaming platforms.

“This law has been in the works since February 2018,” said Isik Mater, research director at Turkey Blocks, an independent nonprofit that tracks online censorship. “In March 2018, it was accepted by the parliament as a part of an omnibus bill.”

Al-Monitor spoke with lawyers, activists and former RTUK members to understand the regulations' limits. Everyone agreed that there were two sensible arguments for the law: to protect the morals of the youth and make foreign businesses pay Turkish taxes. But the bill’s vague wording mystifies even some experts.

In a nutshell, the law requires radio, television and other types of broadcasting businesses, including on-demand services with paid subscribers, to obtain licenses and obey RTUK regulations. Mater explained that each license costs 100,000 Turkish liras (about $18,000).

“This sort of payment isn't a deal-breaker for big companies such as Netflix, but for their local counterparts BluTV or PuhuTV, this is a serious amount," he said.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) backs the law, but two members of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) have opposed it. One of them, Faruk Bildirici, the CHP's representative to the RTUK, raised a red flag about the regulations' ambiguous terms and said he hopes the agency doesn't follow its past trend of "punitive practices." 

A law professor at a state university who spoke on condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor, “Any law that is not clear causes more harm than good. This regulation was deliberately left both ambiguous and broad so that it can have punitive consequences to immediately punish whoever the government sees as a threat.”

Mater said, “There is no way the government can regulate YouTube." But Turkey has temporarily blocked access to the platform several times starting in 2007 and can do it again any time. “According to the published regulations, if the platform fails to comply with an RTUK warning within 30 days, then access may be shut off for three months.” The RTUK can also revoke an existing license and prosecute publishers.

Although Netflix and other platforms may wish to comply with RTUK regulations, it's impossible to blur every wine glass, bleep every possibly objectionable word and remove every passionate kiss from their shows. But these actions can easily be imposed for Turkish broadcasting. Turkish shows such as Behzat C on Netflix or BluTV will be regulated as though they were broadcast by a regular TV station. 

Ayse Cavdar, an anthropologist who has studied Islamist communities for more than two decades, explained to Al-Monitor the rationale behind such futile yet relentless attempts at censorship from the perspective of conservative populist governments.

“These [regulations] are the AKP's ammunition to deepen its wishful moral domination. It resorts to such efforts because it has no other tools left at its disposal. The paradox is, the Islamist/conservative populist viewpoint is as fragile as it is rigid. Its main vulnerability is its inability to solve daily problems, so [it says], 'Let’s not try to provide solutions, but rather make the problem invisible,'" she said.

So far, the AKP's pattern fits Cavdar’s explanation. For example, media allegations of government corruption or mismanagement of funds are routinely left unresolved or unchallenged. The expected outcome is that the journalists will be prosecuted and access to the news will be blocked. 

“If AKP [members] perceive they are having a tough time disciplining the sexuality of youth within the framework of heterosexual marriage, then they can easily label other forms of sexuality as inappropriate or immoral and punish such acts,” Cavdar added.

Turkey is gradually becoming a country where simple global services are no longer accessible. If you need quick info, Wikipedia is blocked. Don’t think about using PayPal for shopping, or for hotel reservations. They are off limits. And now Netflix and other paid subscription services will become just like regular TV — no wine, no cursing and no touching.

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