Turkey’s top court rules blocking of news portal violates freedom of expression

Turkey’s top court has ruled the government’s blocking of the critical news website Sendika.org violated the right to freedom of expression, the T24 news portal reported on Wednesday.

The Turkish Constitutional Court (AYM) accepted an application lodged in October 2015 by sendika.org which claimed that the blockings of its entire website by the Turkish Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) violated its right to freedom of expression.

Following its long-awaited ruling on lifting the blanket ban, the Constitutional Court will now convey it to the first-instance court which will, in turn, deliver its decision of lifting the access block to sendika.org and notify the BTK of its decision.

The critical news website was first blocked on July 25, 2015, with an interlocutory injunction by the Turkish Telecommunications Directorate (TIB), a department of the BTK which was closed on August 17, 2016, via a state of emergency decree No. 671 in the aftermath of an attempted military coup on July 15, 2016.

After the TIB’s closure, all its powers and functions were transferred to the parent authority, the BTK, which continued blocking the website.

The two authorities – the TIB and the BTK – have blocked access to the portal for 62 times so far, making it the most-blocked website in the country.

Following its 49th blocking on July 4, 2017, sendika.org applied for a Guinness World Record as the news website being subjected to the most access blocks in the world.

The portal currently continues publishing news with the internet address sendika63.org.

The website, which is critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, filed objections to the lower courts after every blocking. However, all its applications were rejected with the same routine letters by the courts.

Since October 9, 2015, sendika.org has thus lodged 17 individual applications to the Constitutional Court, which had refused to rule on all those applications until its latest ruling.

The latest Constitutional Court ruling came after sendika.org applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in February.

Similarly, the Constitutional Court justices voted 10-6 in favor of lifting a ban on Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, with immediate effect in December last year after the Wikimedia Foundation took the matter to Europe’s top human rights court in May. On January 15, 2020, the block of Wikipedia in Turkey was been lifted.

Turkey’s top court has refused to rule on online censorship cases for years, leaving critics and human rights organizations to accuse it of abdicating its responsibility to ensure the respect for freedom of expression.

Two prominent law professors and human rights activists, Yaman Akdeniz and Kerem Altiparmak, have sued the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government over more than a hundred court decisions for blocking certain websites, including sendika.org.

Only a few of their petitions have been successful. The pair, for instance, took the bans on Twitter and YouTube to the Constitutional Court and the ECtHR. The latter ruled that both bans were violating freedom of expression. Contrary to its routine, Ankara respected the ECtHR decision and lifted the bans.

In general, the Turkish authorities ignore the ECtHR verdicts, though the country is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It opts instead to paying fines.

“The constitutional court is careful to tackle only the most innocuous cases and leaves the political ones,” Altiparmak told Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based international media rights group, in 2019.

Officially, the court has closed 98% of the cases initiated in 2015, but none of them involves online censorship. Therefore, this makes it harder for lawyers to turn to the ECtHR which usually insists that all domestic judicial remedies must be first exhausted.

A study by the Freedom of Expression Association (IFOD) has revealed that more than 280,000 websites and domains have been blocked in Turkey between 2015 and October 2019.

The IFOD, an NGO working in the field of freedom of expression, announced in its report that the number of blocked sites was 80,553 as of the end of 2015.

Backed by the United Nations (UN), the report said the authority to block websites has been granted to some other administrative public institutions in addition to the courts after 2015.

Based on Law No. 5651 on Regulation of Publications on the Internet and Suppression of Crimes Committed through Such Publication, widely known as the Internet Law, the Turkish authorities have blocked 7,334 news sites since February 2014, according to the IFOD report.

Article 8/A of the law allows for the website blockings on the grounds of protecting the right to life and security of people and property, national security and public order, prevention of crimes or protection of general health, on the request of relevant ministries or the Turkish presidency.

The law, which was enacted in 2007 to protect children and prevent access to illegal and harmful Internet content, has repeatedly been amended over the years to broaden the scope for censorship.

“The Articles 8/A and 9 of the Internet Act [Law No. 5651] have been used to silence all kinds of expressions and criticism targeting political figures and leaders [in Turkey],” the report read.

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