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Turkey Blocks Access to VOA Turkish Language Content

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FILE - The Wilbur J. Cohen VOA Building in Washington.

The heads of Voice of America and Germany's Deutsche Welle on Friday criticized actions by Turkey's media regulator to block access to their content.

Turkey's Radio and Television Supreme Council, known as RTUK, blocked VOA's Turkish-language content and DW's news sites Thursday after both international public broadcasters declined to apply for licenses as requested by the regulator.

In February, RTUK gave three international broadcasters, including VOA's Turkish Service, short notice to obtain broadcast licenses or have their content blocked.

Ilhan Tasci, an RTUK board member from the main opposition Republican People's Party and vocal critic of the licensing demand, announced Thursday on Twitter that access to VOA's Turkish Service and DW had been blocked by a court decision.

The block affects VOA's Turkish news website amerikaninsesi.com and all of DW's language services.

"Access to DW Turkce and Voice of America, which did not apply for licenses, has been blocked by the Ankara Criminal Court of Peace, upon the request of the RTUK board," Tasci said Thursday. "Here is your freedom of press and advanced democracy!" he added sarcastically.

The February licensing decision was based on a regulation that had gone into effect in August 2019. At that time, several media freedom advocates raised concerns about possible censorship because the regulation granted RTUK the authority to control all online content.

RTUK's deputy head, Ibrahim Uslu, dismissed the concerns, saying the decision "has nothing to do with censorship but is part of technical measures."

Under the regulation, RTUK is authorized to request broadcast licenses from "media service providers" so that their radio, TV broadcasting and on-demand audiovisual media services can continue their online presence.

If the licensees do not follow RTUK's principles, the regulation allows RTUK to impose fines, suspend broadcasting for three months or cancel broadcast licenses.

Peter Limbourg, the director general of DW, said the broadcaster will take legal action over the block.

"We had outlined in an extensive correspondence and even in a personal conversation with the chairman of the media control authority why DW could not apply for such a license. For example, media licensed in Turkey are required to delete online content that RTUK interprets as inappropriate," Limbourg said in statement published by DW. "This is simply unacceptable for an independent broadcaster."

VOA Acting Director Yolanda López said the network "firmly objects" to RTUK's decision, which she described as "a thinly veiled effort to censor unfavorable press coverage."

"Through circumvention tools and other means, VOA will not be deterred," López said in a statement Friday.

Kelu Chao, acting head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA, also said the agency would not be deterred.

"RTÜK has made an alarming choice to pave the way for internet censorship. Audiences in Turkey deserve access to fact-based news about the world around them," she said in a statement.

With this decision, the authority of RTUK over news websites was used for the first time, said Can Güleryüzlü, president of the Progressive Journalists Association.

"Voice of America and Deutsche Welle (DW Turkish) reported on many issues that were followed by millions and that the national press could not bring to the agenda. With the last decision of the judiciary, (that) has been blocked. The judiciary turned its face not to justice but to the government in Turkey," Güleryüzlü added.

Yaman Akdeniz, a cyberlaw professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, told VOA Turkish that "complete access blocking to these news websites can only be described as censorship."

The court's decision to block access to VOA Turkish came on the heels of the meeting between President Joe Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in Madrid.

President Joe Biden meets with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the NATO summit in Madrid, June 29, 2022.
President Joe Biden meets with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the NATO summit in Madrid, June 29, 2022.

When Turkey first announced its licensing decision in February, VOA issued a statement that said its charter "prevents VOA from agreeing to or allowing its coverage to be censored in any way."

The RTUK decision was "noted with regret," a spokesperson for Germany's government said Friday.

"Our concern about the situation of freedom of expression and of the press in Turkey persists," DW cited the spokesperson as saying.

The U.S. State Department also expressed concern.

"We regret the Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) decision to block access to VOA Turkish and DW, in enforcement of its February 2022 application of broadcast licensing requirements to the websites of these outlets," a department spokesperson said.

"This access ban expands government control over freedom of expression and press freedom in Turkey and clearly exposes the websites of these outlets to being censored or banned. As such, we do not see it as a simple, technical requirement," the spokesperson added.

Turkey has a poor record for press freedom, ranking 149 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, for which 1 is the freest.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which compiles the annual index, says that discriminatory practices against media in Turkey are commonplace and that the RTUK "helps to weaken critical TV channels economically, by giving them heavy fines."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists on Friday called on Ankara to reverse its decision.

"Turkish authorities' censorship of the international broadcasters Voice of America and Deutsche Welle is the latest attempt to silence critical media as the country prepares to hold elections next year," said Gulnoza Said, CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in a statement.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to include statements from the heads of the German government, media freedom groups, and DW, VOA and the USAGM.

Ezel Sahinkaya and Begum Ersoz of VOA's Turkish Service contributed to this report. Some information for this report came from Reuters.

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