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In Turkey, Proposed Internet Filters Stir Protests

Filed by KOSU News in World News.
August 9, 2011

Faced with criticism at home and abroad, Turkey has decided to delay new Internet restrictions that were due to take effect this month. The government also has reduced the number of filters, which it says will target adult content.

Critics call the filters another blow to freedom of expression. Scores of Turkish journalists are already in jail, and thousands more are under investigation. The issue is clouding Turkey’s reputation as a model for the region.

For months now, Turks have been protesting the government’s plan to force Internet users to choose from among a list of filtering packages [READ IN NYT THAT THEY ARE LABELED "STANDARD," "CHILDREN," "FAMILY" AND "DOMESTIC" — WORTH MENTIONING?] designed to block certain unspecified websites. Some of the largest demonstrations were held in May.

Government websites have also been hacked as activist groups seek to bring international attention to what they see as a threat to free expression.

Ozgur Uckun, a professor at Bilgi University, says thousands of websites may already be blocked in Turkey, including an unknown number of political sites.

Publicly, Turkish officials are vigorously defending both the Internet restrictions and the way Turkish media are treated. When the U.S. ambassador raised concerns about press freedom earlier this year, Interior Minister Besir Atalay was vigorous in his response.

“In terms of press freedom, Turkey is well ahead of America. Turkey has a very progressive press law, and compared with the rest of the world, press freedom here is lived to the fullest,” he said.

Now The Law, Not Bombs, Used To Intimidate

But for those who would hold Turkey up as a model for Arab protesters demanding reforms, the issue of threats to the media — both new and old — is a problem.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ratcheted up the pressure during her visit to Turkey last month. She told an audience on CNN’s Turkish channel that a country as strong and stable as Turkey should be able to withstand opinions it doesn’t care for — something U.S. politicians have long learned to live with.

“People say or do things in my country that personally I find just offensive, and un-patriotic and anti-American, and it makes my blood boil,” Clinton said. “But we know that, over time, that basically gets overwhelmed by other opinion.”

Turks, however, have never embraced the notion that the cure for infuriating free speech is more free speech. Veteran journalist and author Ertugrul Mavioglu remembers the days when the threats were old-fashioned: bombs exploding in a newspaper office, reporters being murdered.

These days, he says, the powers that be tend to rely on the judiciary. He can’t remember if he has seven or eight cases pending against him at the moment.

“There are 2,000 court cases pending against journalists in Turkey right now, and roughly 10,000 ongoing investigations. And all of this makes doing your job very difficult. You have to spend time getting prepared, writing your defense, dealing with the police, it’s extremely difficult,” he says.

International Pressure Not Enough

Mavioglu believes international pressure can help raise the issue’s profile, but it will be up to Turkish journalists willing to risk their careers and possibly their liberty to confront the government and convince it that a free press is worth the headache.

“The overt abuses of the press under the junta in the 1980s are now a bit more subtle. But the government is using everything in its power — economic pressure, law enforcement, judicial pressure — to create only a single voice in the country. And their efforts have been paying off. So when Hillary Clinton or the EU makes a statement, that’s not what will convince Erdogan to change,” he says.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office released a statement after Clinton’s visit saying that as someone who experienced threats for his words in the past, Erdogan would not allow journalists to be punished for properly doing their jobs, and that Turkey would not allow freedom of the press to be threatened.

Analysts say the next signal of the government’s intentions on media freedom will be how it proceeds with the modified [MODIFIED HOW? UP TO THIS POINT, JUST DISCUSSING DELAY] Internet filter proposal, now set to take place in November. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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