6:03pm

Tue August 9, 2011
Europe

In Turkey, Proposed Internet Filters Stir Protests

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 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 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 authorities 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," he says. "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."

International Pressure Not Enough

Mavioglu believes international pressure can help, but says Turkish journalists will have to risk their careers and possibly their liberty to confront the government.

"The overt abuses of the press under the junta in the 1980s are now a bit more subtle," he says. "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."

He said that comments by Clinton and other prominent Western officials would not persuade Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to change his mind.

The prime minister'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 it said that Turkey would not allow freedom of the press to be threatened.

Analysts say they will be closely watching to see what the government does in November, when it now plans to proceed with the Internet filter proposal.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.