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Restrictions on Turkish Media Tighten

  • Dorian Jones

Turkish journalists demonstrate outside the governor's office to protest censorship and new regulations on media freedoms and Internet bans in Istanbul, Feb. 16, 2014.

Turkish journalists demonstrate outside the governor's office to protest censorship and new regulations on media freedoms and Internet bans in Istanbul, Feb. 16, 2014.

Turkey's President Abdullah Gül has signed controversial new Internet control measures into law despite national and international criticism and concerns about reduced freedoms for Turkish media. VOA's Dorian Jones met in Istanbul with the founder of an independent Internet news site that has been at the forefront of the battle over Internet and press freedom.

The website Vagus.tv features a mixture of professional and citizen journalism. According to its founder, Serdar Akinan, such sites have become increasingly popular, especially in the last couple of months, due to extensive allegations of high-level government corruption. But Akinan said reporting on corruption put Vagus itself in the news.

"We started to publish some corruption allegations about the prime minister [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan]. But all of sudden, one night, like two weeks ago, they shut [us] down, they closed the site. And 12 days we stayed closed, but after I became an issue in Turkey ... they were forced to open the site," said Akinan.

In a parliamentary address, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, demanded to know why Vagus website was blocked. That pressure appeared to work and the authorities reopened the site, providing little in the way of explanation as to why it was closed and then reopened.

This is not the first time that Akinan has crossed swords with the government. He was once a well-known and established mainstream journalist, working as an editor at some of the top Turkish news TV channels.

But, he claimed, he has become a marked man for pursuing an editorial policy that is impartial, including its coverage of Prime Minister Erdoğan.

"Two years ago I was editor-in-chief of Sky Turk News Channel, so because of my broadcasting policy, let's say there was huge pressure. I know that the government, especially Prime Minister Erdoğan, pushed very hard for firing me, and one day they fired me. I was writing also [a] column for Aksam daily, and also I was fired from there. So Vagus was born like that," said Akinan.

The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, in its recent report about attacks on the press during the past year, highlighted what it contends is the widespread policy in Turkey of firing journalists critical of the government. Similar concerns were reflected by the European Union in its latest report on Turkey’s membership bid. Charges the government denies, insisting that media freedom has improved under its rule.

Akinan’s launch of the Vagus.tv site fortuitously coincided with last summer’s wave of anti-government demonstrations, known as the Gezi Park protests. With mainstream media widely suspected of being under government pressure to play down the unrest, news sites like Vagus filled the vacuum. But it proved to be a bittersweet success.

"Vagus, after the Gezi Park protests, reached 2 million unique visitors per month, which is quite a big number for Turkey. And I go check all the advertising companies, and they say this is quite a good number and normally you should get this amount of advertising, but we cannot give to you. Because your site, you are doing some news, and that the prime minister is not happy with you, and you are on the blacklist," said Akinan.

And it is likely that things will get worse for Akinan.

Earlier this month, thousands of people protested against the government's move to extend its control over the Internet. The sweeping legislation gives the ruling AK Party the power to close websites deemed to threaten individual privacy, without a court order. Akinan admitted the new law could force him out of business.

"Before that it was just judges ... deciding bad and good content. Now it’s the bureaucrats - bureaucrats appointed by the prime minister himself. There is no more justice for the journalists. My wife and me, we are planning to go outside Istanbul, we will open an organic farm and we will live like that," he said.

Observers warn that Ankara is likely to face growing domestic and international pressure over Internet and journalist freedom.

On Tuesday, President Gül expressed concern about dwindling press freedom in Turkey, saying the media have the right to rise up against “wrongful practices.” He compared Turkey's global image to that of a light which had been shining brightlhy but is now fading.
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