New internet regulations in Turkey stoke censorship fears

International streaming services such as Netflix must find a way to comply with RTUK’s new rules or risk being barred from Turkey.

ISTANBUL — New rules for internet media and streaming services in Turkey are stoking fears of increased government pressure on dissent.

Turkey granted its radio and television watchdog, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK), sweeping oversight over all online content, including streaming platforms and news outlets. The move to strengthen the RTUK, an institution dominated by the government and its nationalist ally, raised concerns that the state was tightening control over the media.

More than 600 institutions, including Netflix and local streaming platforms Puhu TV and BluTV have applied for licences under the new rules, RTUK said.

Free speech advocates said RTUK’s new powers could be used to smother media outlets that refuse to toe the government line. The regulations extend RTUK rules to online broadcasters such as Medyascope, an internet television station critical of the government.

“Of course this is censorship,” Veysel Ok, a Turkish lawyer who specialises in free speech cases, said about the new rules.

Turkish-language services of international outlets such as the Britain’s BBC, Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW) or the United States’ Voice of America (VoA) might be affected, Ok said by telephone. He said he had initiated a complaint before Turkey’s highest administrative court in Ankara to stop the new RTUK rules.

Medyascope and foreign content providers the BBC, DW and VoA have become popular with Turks seeking news coverage not under Ankara’s control. Most of Turkey’s large media organisations are owned by companies close to the government.

Critics said pressure on independent outlets has increased since a failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016. More than 100 journalists are in prison, journalist associations said. Turkey ranked 157th out of 180 countries on a press freedom index by Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group.

The government denies it is cracking down on free speech, arguing that some media in Turkey were instruments of the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Islamic cleric accused by Erdogan of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt.

RTUK said the new requirements had nothing to do with censorship. “Our aim is not to limit individual freedom but to regulate a field that has been off the books,” the organisation said on Twitter. “There is no cause for concern.”

However, critics do not trust RTUK. Six of the nine council members represent Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party and its right-wing partner, the Nationalist Movement Party.

The new RTUK regulations stipulate that content providers must have a fresh licence and comply with RTUK guidelines to operate in Turkey. If they do not respect the guidelines, they will be given 30 days to change their content or face having their licences suspended for three months and later cancelled. It is unclear what standards RTUK expects.

One result of the new requirements could be that images of cigarettes and alcoholic drinks will have to be blurred in programmes on Netflix and other broadcasters, in line with RTUK rules that the organisation said have been introduced to protect young people and family values.

Consequences could be much more serious than blurred whisky glasses, said Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University and a cyber-rights activist.

Akdeniz said Turkey already restricted the free flow of information on the internet by blocking access to more than 245,000 websites, including the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. By the end of the year, that figure was likely to be around 300,000, Akdeniz said by e-mail.

“Based on this censorship climate, things will only get worse,” Akdeniz said. “The new system is advertised as a ‘licensing regime’ but, in reality, this is yet another censorship mechanism and tool that will target independent media outlets.”

Akdeniz agreed with Ok in saying that international providers such as BBC, DW and VoA could face problems in Turkey.

“If they choose not to apply for a licence or if their applications are rejected, [RTUK] will ask a criminal judgeship of peace to block access to such media outlets’ websites from Turkey. This is now a strong possibility.”

Kerem Altiparmak, a human rights lawyer, said the move was the “biggest step in Turkish censorship history” and said all outlets producing opposition news would be affected.

“Everyone who produces alternative news and broadcasts will be affected by this regulation,” Altiparmak wrote on Twitter. “Every news report that can be against the government will be taken under control.”

International streaming services such as Netflix must find a way to comply with RTUK’s new rules or risk being barred from Turkey.

Netflix serves 1.5 million subscribers in Turkey and reaches about 10% of the country’s broadband households, the company said. That makes the Turkish market a potentially important and lucrative source of new subscribers as competition mounts.

The company operates one of the world’s largest streaming services and has sustained its position at the top by courting new subscribers outside the United States as its US home market matures. In the quarter ended June 30, Netflix lost subscribers in the United States for the first time in eight years and fell short of targets for new subscriber growth overseas.

As part of obtaining the Turkish licence, Netflix said it would set up a local entity and pay 0.5% of revenue generated in Turkey to the government. The company said it is in discussions to pay similar levies in Spain and Italy.

Turkey has not attempted to censor Netflix content, a source told Reuters.

Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.

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