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Netflix Turkey cancels new series with gay character after government pressure

Netflix Turkey's decision to cancel a series with a gay character due to government pressure indicates that LGBTI+ society and rights are increasingly coming into the government's crosshairs.

Under pressure from the Turkish government, Netflix has canceled a new series before filming had even begun in what critics decry as a new extreme in censorship in the country.

After the success of original Turkish-language series such as “The Protector” and “The Gift,” Netflix Turkey was preparing to film “If Only.” The series was to feature popular actress Ozge Ozpirincci as Reyhan, an unhappily married woman who time travels back in time to the moment her husband proposed to her. 

Yet on July 14, one day before shooting was scheduled to commence, Netflix canceled the project. According to an interview with the show’s creator and screenwriter, Ece Yorenc, Netflix shelved the project after Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council, the state media regulator, objected to a gay side character in the script. Normally in Turkey, unwanted content is censored or banned after a series has been released. 

According to Lara Ozlen, social media expert at the Speak Out Platform, a nongovernmental organization challenging censorship in Turkey, Netflix’s cancellation of “If Only” is an extreme example of the culture of censorship that has long existed in the country. 

“Once censorship begins it is like an unstoppable vortex,” Ozlen told Al-Monitor, referring to ever-increasing levels of government control since the implementation of state internet filters led to massive protests in 2011. 

Bilge Yesil, an associate professor of media culture at the City University of New York, described the cancellation of “If Only” as a shocking new level of censorship that is ultimately consistent with the “authoritarian, state-centered approach” of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

“The latest Netflix decision exposes how Turkish media culture is becoming increasingly narrow with each passing year, month, day,” Yesil, the author of "Media in New Turkey: The Origins of an Authoritarian Neoliberal State," told Al-Monitor.

In the last few months, Netflix in particular has been in the government’s crosshairs. As of late 2019, Netflix had 1.5 million subscribers in Turkey. 

On April 13, Ebubekir Sahin, who heads the Radio and Television Supreme Council, publicly threatened Netflix for including LGBTI+ content. "We will not tolerate broadcasts that are contrary to the national and spiritual values ​​of our society,” Sahin told the pro-government daily Yeni Akit.

Earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to crack down on Netflix, YouTube and Twitter. “Do you understand why we’re against these [digital] platforms? They are immoral,” he said in a speech. 

Television is already tightly controlled in Turkey, with the radio and TV council handing out hefty fines and blackout orders to channels that break its regulations against nudity, alcohol and cigarettes or that challenge taboos about religion or politics. 

Until August 2019, online streaming platforms remained a partial safe haven from the sanitized world of cable TV. Netflix and local websites like BluTV remained places where one could watch more edgy content than on mainline channels.

This began to change when the council was given oversight over all online content in Turkey, including foreign streaming platforms and news services. Now companies are required to obtain a broadcasting license allowing for council supervision.

Because Netflix is foreign-based, it is subject to an additional level of control. To film in Turkey, companies must apply for a permit for foreign producers and send the script to Turkey’s Ministry of Tourism and Culture for review. 

In the case of “If Only,” Netflix’s initial permit application was rejected without explanation. According to screenwriter Yorenc, the show had no particularly risque content. There was a gay character but no sex scenes. Even so, the team behind the series decided to remove this character from the script. After they reapplied, the Ministry of Tourism and Culture issued a filming permit. 

However, on July 14, the TV council and Netflix representatives met in Ankara. After this meeting, Netflix decided to cancel the project. 

This led to speculation that Netflix might be pulling out of Turkey. In response, Netflix issued a statement reiterating the company's commitment to their Turkish subscribers and collaborators. However, they did not elaborate on what occurred during the meeting with RTUK. 

According to some sources, Netflix preferred to cancel “If Only” rather than accede to further demands. 

Yet the company has previously demonstrated a willingness to remove content according to the wishes of foreign governments, as when it complied with Turkey’s request to remove local access to an episode of the show “Designated Survivor” negatively portraying a fictional Turkish president. 

Netflix has also removed content at the request of Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Vietnam and Germany. 

Despite this readiness to bow to local mores, conservative public opinion in Turkey has turned against Netflix. In April, rumors spread on social media about a gay character in the locally produced teen drama “Love 101.” This rumor, which turned out actually to apply to “If Only,” sparked calls for a boycott of the streaming platform. According to conservative Twitter users and pro-government columnists, queer themes in media are part of a plot by the “LGBT lobby” to “encourage homosexuality” in Turkish society. 

As homophobic discourse rages in Turkey, becoming particularly belligerent during Pride Week, the mere presence of a gay character in a fictional series was enough to cause a crisis between government institutions and the world’s largest streaming platform. 

Yesil argues that it is no coincidence that hate speech against LGBTI+ people is rising at the same time that the AKP is proposing new legislation to restrict social media. 

“The AKP has long used the threat of media content it deems threatening to the morals of society to tighten the flow of information,” Yesil told Al-Monitor, adding that a similar moral panic emerged in the early 2000s about websites about drugs, prostitution and Satanism thought to endanger Turkish youth had set the groundwork for the Internet Law of 2007, which allowed the government to ban websites like YouTube.

According to Ozlen, the government’s reaction both to the Internet and to LGBTI+ issues is based on fear.

“What scares them is both the uncontrollable flow of information and the sexuality of women and LGBTI+ people. Yet both the women’s and LGBTI+ movements are growing stronger. This may be why the repression is intensifying as well.” 

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