Why does Turkey censor the Internet?

by KLAUS JURGENS

Has surfing the Net become a crime? Are we not entitled to live in a knowledge-based economy? We must resist the temptation to judge the Turkish civic liberties book by its cover and instead find out who the real players are behind the recent domestic crusade against the free flow of information.

Accepting “change” as a constant factor both in business as well as everyday life is no easy task. In many instances “change” is in fact linked to the advent of information technologies (IT). This article, actually, is perhaps based on online research done by visiting banned websites and clicking onto certain unrestricted Internet access providers that no court or politician can block, thereby bypassing the ban like everyone else in Turkey.

Both from a technical and judicial perspective, it is of course possible to limit access to the Internet for a specific geographic location or website. The question though is about the “why” and not the “how”; why would a government wish to censor the free flow of information, and in such a large capacity? Estimations for Turkey are surprisingly high. According to the BBC’s Jonathan Head (July 2, 2010) local campaigners for Internet freedom say that at present around 4,000 websites in Turkey are blocked.

While the Turkish government passed the initial law concerning the regulation of Internet sites in 2007 (Law No 5651, BBC ibid.) the Turkish courts were given the ultimate decision-making authority to enforce it; they were also granted the power to interpret which sites should be regulated. Since May 2008, the popular website YouTube has been added to the infamous list of banned websites, the court having concluded that several of the videos featured “criminal” activity. The sad truth is that many are still lost as to which “criminal offenses” the YouTube videos depicted.

In a remarkable piece of investigative journalism the BBC met with Chairwoman Tansel çölaÅŸan of Turkey’s Atatürkist Thought Association (ADD) goes without saying that çölaÅŸan is not at the forefront of promoting free speech, especially if it involves debate concerning Turkish politics. With the vindication of a strident Turkish nationalist, she speaks with very little concern about how foreigners might interpret the country’s free speech laws. She told the BBC: “(…) for us Atatürk is a symbol of democracy and women’s emancipation (…) I am not bothered by the impact of the court decision,” referring to the YouTube ban in particular.

As a matter of fact, the ADD itself is behind most complaints that ultimately led the government to engage in limiting the free access to the Internet. At the heart of the matter is the fact that foreign websites’ contributors have insulted the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, which in itself is considered a criminal offense in this country.

The question is, where do we draw the line in defending free speech? Let’s first step away from the specific issue of the Internet bans to focus on the free speech issue in a more generalized context. Should we, for example, ban movies with Louis de Funés because in one of them he portrayed a successful bank robber? Shall we eliminate national televised access to “Sponge Bob” because children see cartoon characters maiming each other for the sake of amusement?

It is time in Turkey for the government to decide if it is for free speech, with all of its complex social side effects, and to accept that people are able to discern for themselves what material is useful and appropriate. Banning Internet access defeats the point of the Internet in the first place, which is to provide widespread access to all kinds of information. With the current government ideology in place suggesting that the public is incapable of managing itself in the face of “criminal” imagery, the next “logical” step is then to ban satellite television, foreign print media an even (gasp!) cross-border travel. While pressure groups like the ADD are, of course, entitled to lobby the government, they should not attempt to run it.

Integrity begins at home. This life-long learning process operates on the assumption that over time we learn the difference between right and wrong. Insulting past leaders of certain countries may be an offense depending on local laws, but banning certain websites because less than 1 percent of their content may be offensive is a greater sin than any.

Maybe I am too optimistic, but democracies should mature. Either we need to accept that some people disagree with what we believe and let them publish it, or we move backwards into the Stone Age. If, for example, we need governments to tell us that becoming a suicide bomber is bad, mankind should urgently reconsider its state of affairs. Unhindered access to the Internet is a democratic right, not a privilege.

I wish to end my contribution by a quote that one of our readers sent in by Alfred Whitney Griswold: “Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.” (New York Times, Feb. 24, 1959)