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Turkey's YouTube Ban Is Cause For Concern

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. Insulting Ataturk - or the idea of 'Turkishness' - is a crime in Turkey.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. Insulting Ataturk - or the idea of 'Turkishness' - is a crime in Turkey.
Very few people in Turkey are exercised by the YouTube blackout, now in its second year. Despite the ban, the video-sharing site is believed to be the ninth most popular site in Turkey. Almost every Internet user -- from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the humblest teenage porn connoisseur -- knows how to circumvent it with proxy browsers. "I get in," Erdogan told reporters in November, 2008. "You can do so as well."

But maybe they should be more concerned. Blocking the exchange of information through the Internet is a top priority with some of the world's most oppressive regimes. China is devoting considerable energy to developing technology to block the best Web 2.0 sites, for example. Inexorably, a line is between drawn between countries that restrict their citizens' access to information and those that do not. And which side of that line does Turkey – with its European Union membership aspirations – find itself on?

Turkey’s YouTube ban originated in a March 2007 flame war between Turkish and Greek users. One of the original offending videos depicted the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, weeping pastel-colored tears to the music of the Village People. In Turkey, insulting Ataturk is a crime, as is "insulting Turkishness." The association of Ataturk with 1970s disco-ball music was interpreted -- by the country's highest legal authorities -- as a profound insult.

Contrary to rumors in online chat rooms, the blackout was not imposed by Turkey's governing Justice and Development (AK) party. It cannot be attributed to the party's Islamic orientation. The ban originates with the secular judiciary. Indeed, there is no love lost between the AK and the judiciary, as evidenced by the latter's recent efforts to ban not only YouTube, but the entire AK party.

The judges say they are obliged to observe the law, even if this consigns Turkey to an unattractive YouTube-banning club comprising Armenia, China, Iran, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates. Senior AK members claim to be opposed to and embarrassed by the ban. "I do not want to see Turkey among those countries in the world that ban YouTube," said President Abdullah Gul last January.

But these same senior AK members have done nothing to change or clarify the legislation to which the court is appealing, suggesting that they find it convenient for Turkish citizens -- and the world -- to regard Turkey's judicial branch as lunatic, primitive, and best ignored or replaced. Certainly this argument has been made by newspapers closely associated with the AK, such as "Zaman." "YouTube Ban Hits Judiciary's Credibility," it reported with no little pleasure on June 3, 2008.

Silent Protest

The offhand effacement of a major venue for political speech and cultural contact with the rest of the world has prompted no street demonstrations here, no acts of civil disobedience. "There have been no 'real life' protests," says blogger Alper Sarikaya, who studies media at Bilkent University in Ankara and often writes about Internet censorship. "Just some people protesting the ban online, mostly anonymously. [Protest] pins and T-shirts are so American."

The issue wasn't mentioned during the municipal election campaign in April. "Since the issue had to do with Ataturk, I don't think any of the political parties wanted to risk being misunderstood," says Sarikaya. No one, he suspects, wanted to be seen as favoring insulting Ataturk.

Turkish civil rights groups have largely ignored the ban. The Turkish press rarely mentions it. The only action that could conceivably be called an organized protest was a desultory movement in August 2008 among fewer than 500 Turkish bloggers to ironically censor their own websites with the words: "This site is blocked because the author himself chose to do it." Some of these bloggers subsequently formed a group called SansureSansur, or "censoring censorship," which tries to raise awareness of the issue by designing anti-blackout banners for online reproduction.

The organizer of the self-censorship gesture, Selim Yoruk, works for 4play, a company that creates and develops mobile and Internet-based projects. "Turkish people tend to approach their problems by ignoring them," Yoruk says. "They don't mind Internet censorship. They think because they can reach the sites, there's no problem. But reaching the sites is not the issue here -- censorship is. It's not about the Internet. It's about freedom. Today we see censorship of the Internet and the media. What about tomorrow? When will we react?"

In a country facing a great number of pressing civil rights challenges, the YouTube blackout may seem to many the least of their worries. But the indifference raises obvious questions: Don't Turkish citizens think there's an important point of principle involved here? Why have so few complained that this is an outrage against freedom of expression? And since they haven't, why would any European want Turkey to be admitted to the EU?

If admitted, Turkey would be entitled, by virtue of its population of 71 million, to the second-largest delegation in the European Parliament, exceeded in power only by Germany. If demographic projections prove correct, Turkey would become the dominant member of the parliament in 2020.

Creeping Ban

YouTube is not the only banned site in Turkey. As of last month, 1,874 other websites were blocked. The courts have in recent years banned the blogging site Wordpress, the websites of a teachers' trade union, and a Turkish dictionary. Censorship, Yoruk says, "is a very common Turkish government policy. If they don't like a comment or an idea, they think the best thing to do is censor it. They like to use this policy not only for the Internet but also with newspapers, television, and even comic-strip magazines."

In November 2008, Google, which owns YouTube, agreed to use Internet-provider blocking to prevent viewers in Turkey from watching videos that were in clear violation of Turkish law. With the offending videos blocked, the judges then restored access to the site.

But six months later, a Turkish prosecutor decided that no Turk, anywhere in the world, should be exposed to the risk of viewing (presumably by accident) a video that might offend him. Google refused to cooperate with this initiative to wipe the disputed videos off the face of the planet, maintaining that one nation's government shouldn't be able to decide the limits of speech for Internet users worldwide. The full ban was slapped back on. Users of Internet providers in the Caucasus who rely upon Turkish service networks have reported that they, too, are unable to visit the blocked domains.

For most people here, the ban represents nothing more than a few seconds of inconvenience when they fancy looking at a video. The real ramifications, however, are far wider. What does it say about Turkish political values that the word "censorship" seems to carry less stigma here than the words "Village People?"

If you were a Turkish entrepreneur, would you devote your innovation and creativity to developing technology platforms such as weblogs, social networks, and video-sharing sites that enable people to have a greater voice in their societies? Given that the courts obviously feel no hesitation about banning these sites, and do so regularly, would you feel any incentive to do so? What kind of legal precedent does this ban set? What does it say about the degree to which Turkey has truly embraced the values upon which the European Charter of Human Rights is based?

Although in principle anyone who believes himself to be harmed by the ban can appeal to the courts, no ordinary citizen has mounted a legal challenge. "People like to define themselves as 'protesters' so long as they don't have to get too involved themselves," says Yoruk. "A lot of people here are intimidated by courts and legal issues."

Under Ataturk, Islamic courts were abolished and replaced with a secular legal apparatus modeled on the Swiss, German, and Italian civil and penal codes. The development of these institutions in Europe, however, was accompanied by centuries of social and cultural evolution. The idea that the legal system should protect, rather than restrict, basic rights remains largely alien to Turkey. People justify the ban, Sarikaya adds, "with the idea of the 'judicial state' -- it is what the Law decided, and it's above anything else and knows what is good."

"We have to recall that the government cannot rule us," Yoruk says. "We do not have to obey them. That's democracy. We select them in order to serve us. They are just politicians. Some say, 'You can't change anything -- why bother?' But if the whole country said, 'That's against freedom and it should be changed,' then the elected government would have to change it. If not, they would know they wouldn't be reelected."

Unfortunately, the country is not saying anything of the sort. Particularly given Turkey's demonstrated eagerness to impose its standards of speech on other countries, it would hardly be unreasonable for Europeans to be concerned about what this means for their freedom should Turkey become an extremely powerful member of their supranational government.

Claire Berlinski is a novelist, journalist, and travel writer based in Istanbul. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.