Thursday, September 27, 2007

Censorship In Turkey

At the risk of getting this blog host shut down, here's what happened:

Wordpress, another blog host, has been shut down in Turkey. Not just one or two blogs-- ALL of them, more than a million blogs. If you try to access a Wordpress blog from here, you get a page that says: "Access to this site has been suspended in accordance with decision no: 2007/195 of T.C. Fatih 2.Civil Court of First Instance." I found this out quite by accident, trying to read something a friend linked to on her blog. I've read on other sites that this shutdown made the front page of some newspaper, but I don't know many Turks who've heard about it, and I certainly didn't hear anything.

Since LE was asleep, I did a little research, and what happened was this. A guy named Edip Yüksel wrote some allegedly libelous things about another guy, Adnan Oktar (and I apologize for being unable to find exactly what he wrote, as it seems to be only on Wordpress sites, which of course I can't access). Mr. Oktar got his nose all out of joint about it, got some lawyers, and went snivelling to a court. The court ordered Wordpress to remove the site, and when they didn't get any response, they blocked the site using the Great Turkish Firewall. In response, Mr. Yüksel got his readers to create a bunch of new blogs with the same information, so the court then ordered Türk Telekom, the state phone company and Internet provider, to block the entire domain (read this for a somewhat amusing account of how the lawyers went about dealing with Wordpress).

This is not the first case of Internet censorship in Turkey. Several months ago, some Greeks and Turks were trading video taunts on You Tube. The Turks said something about all Greeks being gay, to which the Greeks retorted with a video insulting Atatürk, and the state blocked all of You Tube for several days, then reinstated it after the offending videos were removed. This was a predictable over-reaction for Turkey, however. They're very sensitive about Atatürk. Additionally, they do have some rather vague laws about it being forbidden to insult Atatürk, Turkishness, or the Turkish state (quite how they define "Turkishness" is an interesting question to ponder, and perhaps I'll ponder it in a future post, but it was under this law that they attempted to prosecute Orhan Pamuk last year), so this kind of action being taken on behalf of the state, while a bit shocking to a Westerner, was hardly surprising.

But this case with Wordpress is different. Apparently, Mr. Yüksel used to be Mr. Oktar's mentor, but they had a falling out of some sort, and have been trading insults ever since, so really, this is a case of the courts getting involved in a long-standing personal feud, and the courts taking a disproportionately large action on behalf of one guy, an action which affects the entire country and a lot of innocent Turkish bloggers who really have nothing to do with any of this. I have to say I don't quite understand who this action was supposed to punish. Mr. Yüksel can continue to blog as he pleases, but it can't be read in Turkey. Mr. Oktar, as a public persona, and a somewhat controversial one, is prone to having libelous statements made about him, but preventing some libelous statements from being read in Turkey for as long as the court order stands hardly protects him from these statements being made. So in my mind, Mr. Oktar has achieved almost nothing, and Mr. Yüksel is not being punished for his alleged libel. Wordpress and its users are the ones who are being sanctioned, but are they really the ones responsible?

Freedom of speech is an interesting issue in Turkey, particularly as it comes up more often these days in light of their drive for acceptance into the EU. Most Turks will tell you that there are no human rights problems in Turkey, and that they have free speech. However, if you cite examples such as the ones above, people generally seem to agree that this kind of censorship is acceptable. Just as in America, people generally agree on what pornography is, or on what should and should not be allowed to appear in certain contexts (with some gray areas, of course), in Turkey most people seem to have similar ideas about what freedom of speech means and what constitutes an abuse of this liberty. Most people I talked to agreed that banning You Tube was appropriate in that case, and these same people wholeheartedly supported the prosecution of Orhan Pamuk. Of course, I didn't talk to enough people to make generalizations across the whole population, but this is the impression I'm left with.

Istanbul Turks often pride themselves on their Western-ness, and resent any implication that Turkey is like the Middle East. Though both culturally and geographically this place straddles Europe and Asia, Istanbul folks perceive themselves as leaning towards the European while to a Westerner, appearing decidedly more Asian. Taken from within the context of Turkey and as someone who lives here, these events sort of make sense in their own way, but I often wonder if they have any idea how ridiculous stuff like this makes them look in Western eyes?

This is all rather trifling in light of recent events in Myanmar, where the state blocking the Internet is the least of their problems, but dammit, I live here.

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