The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) has requested the blocking of access to the Turkish-language website (www.voaturkce.com) of Voice of America (VOA), an international broadcasting organization funded by the United States federal government, citing the lack of a broadcasting license. On August 23, 2023, the Ankara 9th Criminal Judicature of Peace issued a ruling to "block access to the URL address 'voaturkce.com' and remove the content from the air."
The blocking of websites in Turkey has unfortunately become a common occurrence. According to the 2022 EngelliWeb report by the Freedom of Expression Association, the number of blocked websites in Turkey had reached a staggering 712,558 by the end of 2022.(1) Additionally, it's important to note that this number doesn't even account for specific content-level blocking (URL-based).
In the past, prominent platforms like Twitter and YouTube, widely-used resources such as Wikipedia, and various news websites like Sputnik, OdaTV, and Independent Turkish have been subject to blocking. Some of these sites remain inaccessible to this day. The majority of these website restrictions were imposed under Law No. 5651, citing reasons like hosting criminal content, infringing on personal rights, or posing national security threats.
However, the decision to block the Voice of America website appears to be based on a different legal ground, specifically Article 29/A of Law No. 6112, which pertains to broadcasting licenses. This highlights the various legal mechanisms employed to regulate online content and access in Turkey.
In 2018, with the addition of Article 29/A to Law No. 6112 by Law No. 7103, radio and television stations broadcasting solely over the internet and on-demand broadcasting service providers became obligated to obtain a broadcasting license from the Supreme Council. Despite the constitutional concerns surrounding this regulation, it was not annulled by the Constitutional Court.(2) Subsequently, in 2019, regulations detailing the implementation of this provision were issued.(3) Within the scope of these regulations, RTÜK blocked the websites of many internet-based radio and TV stations between 2020 and 2022 for not having obtained a license.(4)
On February 21, 2022, RTÜK (Radio and Television Supreme Council) announced that news websites such as Voice of America, Deutsche Welle (DW), and EuroNews Turkey ("tr.euronews.com") had the option to apply for an on-demand broadcasting service ("INTERNETIBYH") license under Article 10 of the Regulation. Under Article 10 of the Regulation, these news websites, Deutsche Welle (DW) and EuroNews Turkey ("tr.euronews.com"), were informed that they could seek a broadcasting license for on-demand broadcasting services on the internet. It was stated that if these websites did not comply with this call, RTÜK reserved the right to request the removal of content and/or the blocking of access through a criminal court of peace within 72 hours, in accordance with Article 29/A.(5)
While the EuroNews Turkish website complied with RTÜK's demands, Voice of America and DW did not apply for a license on the grounds that their broadcasts were not covered by the law, and access to these websites was blocked by the Ankara 1st Criminal Judge of Peace on 30.06.2022. Subsequently, Voice of America continued its Turkish broadcasts under a new domain name, but as mentioned above, access to this broadcast was also blocked.
Voice of America and DW Turkish primarily focus on written news and do not offer live broadcasts. However, they do archive certain news content in video format. RTÜK asserts that such categorized video news falls under the category of on-demand broadcasting. Nevertheless, when we typically think of on-demand broadcasting services, platforms like Netflix, Amazon, BluTv, Disney+, Mubi, and Spotify come to mind. These platforms provide catalogs of content that users can watch at their convenience, based on their preferences.
The Turkish editions of Voice of America and DW do not differ significantly from other online news websites. Internet news websites were brought under the purview of the Press Law through amendments introduced by Law No. 7148 in 2022. Consequently, it is now possible to regulate internet news websites under both Law No. 5651 and the Press Law.
The Constitution explicitly safeguards freedom of the press, as outlined in Article 28, which stipulates that establishing a printing house cannot be made conditional upon obtaining a license or depositing a financial guarantee. It is evident that requiring a license to establish an internet news website contradicts this constitutional provision. Such a licensing requirement for news websites could undermine an independent press. However, the decision to block access to the Voice of America website does not appear to address this constitutional concern.
Furthermore, in the most recent decision, the judge not only ordered access to be blocked but also directed the removal of the publications from the website's content. This action has resulted in the complete destruction of thousands of news items with archival value.