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In a recent interview with the International Press Institute (IPI), Can Dündar, former editor-in-chief of the newspaper Cumhuriyet and founder of the online broadcasting site Özgürüz.com, highlighted his concerns over further censorship of free speech in Turkey by a law soon to come before parliament that would introduce strictly monitored licences for online streaming sites.

New measures to monitor all types of online content, including personal social media accounts, were outlined in Article 73 of an omnibus bill passed by the Parliamentary Planning and Budget Commission of Turkey’s parliament on February 21, 2018.

“Erdoğan already has control over the printed media in Turkey and at the same time over the TV and radio stations”, Dündar said.  “Now it is the turn of internet media.”

The proposed law would require online broadcasters, including those already holding valid permits, to fulfil strict criteria and to apply for a license. In addition to the fee, broadcasters would be subjected to a security check by the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and the police, if considered necessary.

Bekir Bozdağ, a presidential aide and Turkish government spokesperson,  said the new regulations were not intended to target press freedom or free speech.

“Conversely, they are concerned with those persons who seek to use these freedoms to engage in other types of criminal activity”, he said.

The bill, which has not yet been debated in parliament, would grant powers to the Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) to monitor and control all online content including audiovisual materials, in any language, whether the broadcasting source is within Turkey or abroad.

If the criteria for holding a license are found not to be met, a broadcaster’s license can be revoked following a court order. Other measures, such as removing content and blocking access to the website in question, can also be taken.

The proposed “streaming law” contained in Article 73 is a direct answer to the growing Internet media sector. For Dündar, the proposal was no surprise.

“We are very concerned about this, but to be honest we were expecting it”, he said. “A lot of journalists nowadays work for Internet media, trying to meet the Turkish audience’s needs. We will have to find new ways to overcome this censorship.”

YouTube and Netflix would also be licenced

Article 73 of the omnibus bill would affect broadcasters such as YouTube and news sites such as Artıgerçek and Medyascope.tv, the recipient of IPI’s 2016 Free Media Pioneer Award. Also coming under the scope of RTÜK supervision under the proposed law are digital TV platforms such as Netflix, PuhuTv, and BluTv, with the licensing obligations also thought to extend to live streams of political parties on their respective internet sites.

In his interview with IPI, Dündar highlighted the dangers for the public in Turkey in accessing news and information and in sharing social media posts.

“Pressure is not only put on journalists and media outlets, but also on followers as well”, he said. “If you want to follow any kind of banned site or even some Twitter addresses, just ‘liking’ or following becomes a crime. So, it’s not even easy to be a follower of a site on social media. We need to find new ways to reach the people without risking their lives.”

He continued: “Our site (Özgürüz) was banned the day before we started. Our reporters in Turkey are reporting via (the streaming provider) Periscope.  But just as China has been doing, Erdoğan can find a way to ban them all.”

The banning of the Özgürüz site has not stopped its journalists from reporting. Like many others, they are using online streaming platforms to get news to their audience.

“The problem is the fear”, Dündar said. “You [as the broadcaster] can be very courageous and brave but the followers have to be brave as well because these days even following a website could be a dangerous thing for them.”

Dündar expressed the need for media organizations to be in dialogue with representatives of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in Turkey and to request their support in tackling censorship.

“Representatives of Twitter and Facebook in Turkey are already dealing with the Turkish government”, he noted. “We represent the other side of Turkey, so they should listen to us.”

IPI’s Turkey Advocacy Coordinator Caroline Stockford said the proposed law is providing Turkish authorities with more tools to restrict freedom of speech.

“We are very concerned that the Radio and Television Supreme Council could be granted sweeping powers to further limit access to information in Turkey”, Stockford said.

“Existing opposition newspapers are already under financial pressure due to fines, imprisonment of staff and limitations on advertising revenue. Given that over 170 media organisations have been closed since 2016, it is vital that the public in Turkey have access to varied news sources so that they can develop an informed view.”