Turkey's media regulator on Wednesday gave three international broadcasters, including Voice of America's Turkish Service, short notice to obtain broadcast licenses or have their content blocked.
The order from the Radio and Television Supreme Council, known as RTUK, also affects German broadcaster Deutsche Welle and Euronews, the regulator's opposition board member said.
"A decision was taken with a majority of votes that 72 hours be granted to the websites of amerikaninsesi.com, dw.com/tr, and tr.euronews.com to get licenses," Ilhan Tasci, a member of RTUK's board, said in a tweet.
Tasci, who was appointed to the board by the opposition Republican People's Party, criticized the decision, calling it a further assault on media freedom in Turkey.
The decision is based on a regulation that went 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.
Also, with the regulation, RTUK has been authorized to request broadcast licenses from "media service providers" in order for their radio, TV broadcasting and on-demand audiovisual media services to continue their online presence.
"Media service providers" has been defined broadly in the regulation to include online news outlets and digital streaming platforms such as Netflix.
The broadcast license, which covers 10 years, costs $7,382 (100,000 Turkish liras) for digital streaming platforms and online TV broadcasting.
The regulation allows RTUK to impose fines, suspend broadcasting for three months or cancel broadcast licenses if the licensees do not follow RTUK's principles.
RTUK has been implementing the regulation among digital streaming platforms. In November 2020, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video received licenses from the regulator, RTUK's head, Ebubekir Sahin, announced on Twitter.
In December 2021, RTUK ordered Netflix to remove the Spanish movie More the Merrier, saying the movie was "based on a fiction in which homosexuality, incest relationships and swinging are intensely experienced" and included immoral scenes that violated the "spiritual values of the public."
The announcement Wednesday marked the first time RTUK has used its regulatory power over online news outlets.
RTUK's deputy head, Ibrahim Uslu, confirmed the decision to German news agency dpa over the phone.
Uslu told dpa that RTUK would publish a detailed notice of its decision on its website "within a week to 10 days," and after that, the broadcasters would have 72 hours to comply.
Uslu dismissed censorship criticisms, saying that the decision "has nothing to do with censorship but is part of technical measures."
Some media freedom advocates point out that RTUK's latest decision could force more international public broadcasters to obtain licenses from the regulator if they want to operate in Turkey, just as is happening with VOA.
"These [international public broadcasters] will have to obtain licenses from Turkey, and in this context, they will have to implement the RTUK and court decisions. Otherwise, access to the websites of these organizations may be blocked from Turkey upon the request of RTUK," Yaman Akdeniz, a cyberlaw professor at Istanbul's Bilgi University, told VOA.
"So organizations outside of Turkey that broadcast and still provide news more freely in Turkish will also be targeted through RTUK before the 2023 elections," Akdeniz added.
Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, seconded Akdeniz's remarks.
"The requirement put before VOA, DW and Euronews is another attempt to control the independent reporting, especially in view of elections set for 2023," Said told VOA.
The next presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for June 2023, but the opposition parties have been calling for an early election.
Said emphasized the importance of international public broadcasters' presence in the Turkish media landscape, pointing to the decline in media freedom in Turkey.
"Many critical journalists now work for international media outlets because they were fired from or left mainstream media outlets in recent years because it became difficult, if not impossible, to work there due to censorship," Said told VOA.
If VOA, DW and Euronews "will not be able to continue their work in Turkey, these highly qualified professionals will become a victim of new regulations," Said added.
Several media freedom advocates have long criticized RTUK. Human Rights Watch says the regulator fails to meet standards of impartiality and independence because of its political alignment with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP).
"When we look at the track record of the RTUK, we see that its board is unwilling to warn or fine the pro-government outlets while acting quite harshly towards critical media outlets," Said told VOA.
RTUK's nine members are nominated by political parties in proportion to their representation in the parliament. Currently, the AKP and the allied Nationalist Movement Party hold the majority.
RTUK did not respond to VOA's requests for comment.
In a February 13 press release to respond to what it said were "unfair recent accusations" in the media, RTUK said it was acting in accordance with Turkish law that states media must obtain licenses to broadcast in the country. The law applies to broadcasts in Turkish or other languages, a release published in Turkish said.
It added that RTUK "stands up for pluralism, press freedom and free news."
In an email to VOA's Turkish Service in response for a request for comment, a VOA spokesperson said VOA was aware of RTUK's requirement for an operating license.
"VOA believes any governmental efforts to silence news outlets is a violation of press freedom, a core value of all democratic societies," Bridget Serchak, the VOA spokesperson, said.
"Should the Turkish government formally block our websites, VOA will make every effort to ensure that its Turkish-speaking audience retains access to a free and open internet using all available methods," the VOA spokesperson added.
The U.S. State Department also responded to a request for comment.
“We are aware of these reports. Our concerns regarding press freedoms in Turkey are well documented and we continue urge Turkey to respect and ensure freedom of expression,” a department spokesperson said.
Deutsche Welle did not respond to VOA’s request for comment but did post a story on its website.
"We have learned from the media about a possible decision by the RTUK that could also haveimplications for DW," a DW spokesperson said. "However, we will be able to make a conclusive analysis and decide how to proceed only once we have received official notification from the authority."
Euronews said it could not comment on the issue for the time being.
VOA's Turkish Service has been broadcasting to Turkey since 1948. The service has provided essential news for the Turkish-speaking audience through its website and TV programming.
In 2019, the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), a pro-government think tank in Turkey, published a 202-page report titled "The Offshoots of International Media Organizations in Turkey" and profiled journalists working for Turkish language services of international public broadcasters, including Voice of America. The report alleged that the broadcasters' coverage of Turkey was one-sided and unfair to the Turkish government.
On Twitter, another opposition member of the RTUK board, Okan Konuralp, called RTUK's decision an application of SETA's report.
"However, this move to suppress the international media is also doomed to failure," he added.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include comments made by RTUK in a press release after publication.
VOA's Hilmi Hacaloglu and Can Kamiloglu contributed to this report, some information for which came from Reuters.