A Turkish court imposed an access ban on the Voice of America (VOA) Turkish edition website after the media outlet refused to comply with an order from the country’s media watchdog to obtain a broadcasting license, the Freedom of Expression Association’s (İFÖD) EngelliWeb initiative announced.
The VOA Turkish website became inaccessible from Turkey without the use of VPN as of Aug. 28 based on a decision from the Ankara 9th Criminal Court of Peace.
The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) said in a statement last week that if VOA Turkish did not submit a petition that includes its application for a broadcasting license within 72 hours and pay the broadcasting license fee for three months up front or halt its broadcasts, access to the website would be blocked.
The US State Department said last week following RTÜK’s announcement that it was closely following the situation and is “deeply concerned.”
A spokesperson, speaking on background, told VOA via email that the US is urging Turkey to “uphold its obligations and commitments to respect the fundamental freedom of expression.”
“The individual’s rights to freedom of expression includes freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers,” the spokesperson said.
“Respect for freedom of expression is enshrined in Turkey’s constitution and in its international commitments and obligations.”
RTÜK, in a controversial move in February 2022, asked the foreign providers of Turkish audio and video content to secure broadcasting licenses, which was described by media outlets as an attempt at censorship and at expansion of the Turkish government’s control over domestic media to foreign outlets.
The foreign media outlets are the only source of free and independent journalism for some people in Turkey, where the majority of the media is controlled by the government.
When VOA Turkish as well as the Turkish edition of German broadcaster Deutsche Welle refused to comply with RTÜK’s order, the watchdog blocked access to both websites in July 2022.
The two news websites became inaccessible in Turkey without the use of VPN. Both shared instructions on their social media accounts about using VPN to access their content.
VOA Turkish, which was operating under the amerikaninsesi.com website at the time, also switched to voaturkce.com to circumvent the access ban.
The threat of a new access ban on VOA Turkish has also attracted widespread criticism from local and international press organizations.
VOA challenged ban
VOA’s public relations department confirmed last week that the regulator had issued a new order requiring that the broadcaster obtain a license within 72 hours and said the media organization would not comply.
“As a public service broadcaster designed to provide accurate and objective news, VOA cannot comply with any directive intended to enable censorship,” VOA spokesperson Bridget Serchak said in an email.
“VOA will continue to object to any requirement by Turkish regulators — or regulators in any country where we provide news and information — that smacks of attempts to censor our news coverage,” VOA acting director Yolanda Lopez said in a statement.
“The requirement to remain a reliable source of independent journalism for our audience is enshrined in our Charter,” Lopez said, adding, “We will take every step necessary to avoid any interference by anyone that threatens the VOA’s ability to deliver on its mission.”
In 2019 Turkey revised its media regulations to allow RTÜK to supervise online broadcasts. Since the new regulations went into effect, various streaming platforms including Netflix and Amazon Prime have applied for and received licenses.
RTÜK is a controversial agency that is accused of contributing to increasing censorship in the country by imposing punitive and disproportionate sanctions on independent television and radio stations critical of the Turkish government.
Turkey has a poor record in media freedom, with RSF noting that around 90 percent of the media is government controlled, leaving few independent or critical news outlets.
The country, which has one of the worst records globally for jailing journalists, ranks 165th out of 180 on the press freedom Index, where first place indicates the best media environment.