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Journalists in Turkey Welcome Ruling Restoring Online Access to Banned News Articles

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Journalists in Turkey are welcoming a recent Constitutional Court ruling that revoked bans on online access to hundreds of news articles.

Last week, the court published a ruling that lifted the bans, stating that the restrictions are unconstitutional and violate freedom of expression.

Lower courts had blocked the stories, citing Article 9 of Law No. 5651, which enables such bans or removal of content in cases of personal rights violations. Press freedom advocates and journalists have long said that the measure was used as a form of censorship against digital media.

In its recent ruling, the Constitutional Court examined 502 orders to block access to websites and articles from 2014 to 2023. Of those, 352 were appealed by the Freedom of Expression Association, the IFOD.

“We have been following this issue since 2014,” Yaman Akdeniz, IFOD’s co-founder and human rights lawyer, told VOA.

The banned news articles were from several independent digital media outlets, including BirGun, Diken, Gazete Duvar, Arti Gercek and sendika.org.

A list of banned stories compiled by IFOD included articles concerning President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his family, his Cabinet members and politicians from his ruling Justice and Development Party.

Cautious welcome

While welcoming the decision, Berkant Gultekin, BirGun’s digital broadcast coordinator, is taking a cautious stance.

“It is a good decision on paper, but we will see over time how it will affect the news production process in Turkey,” Gultekin said.

“Even if the Constitutional Court decides in favor of journalists, we cannot say, ‘We are free now,’ as the government decides which ruling the judiciary will implement,” Gultekin said, noting that the court’s rulings in other, unrelated cases are worrying.

Turkey has recently experienced a judicial crisis over the continued imprisonment of ex-parliament member Can Atalay. Atalay was elected to parliament in May 2023 from the Workers’ Party of Turkey, or TIP, while serving an 18-year prison sentence on charges of trying to overthrow the government.

In October and December, the Constitutional Court, in separate decisions, ruled for the release of Atalay. Elected parliamentarians in Turkey enjoy legislative immunity as stated in the constitution. Still, the top appeals court, the Court of Cassation, dismissed the rulings, and Atalay’s status as a lawmaker was stripped away by parliament last month.

Banu Tuna is the secretary-general of the Journalists’ Union of Turkey, or TGS, which was a plaintiff in the case that sought to repeal the bans on access to digital content.

“Of course, we are pleased with our result, but will this decision protect other outlets from being censored in the future?” Tuna asked.

While welcoming the Constitutional Court’s ruling in the access ban case, she said Atalay’s situation is an example of problems facing Turkey’s judicial system.

“We essentially fulfilled our duty, and the Constitutional Court confirmed we were right,” she said. Tuna added that from this point on, the issue is what the Constitutional Court decisions mean for other courts and to what extent such decisions are implemented.

Diken, an independent media outlet, filed at least 118 applications to the Constitutional Court asking it to revoke access bans.

“The ruling has recorded our right to inform and people’s right to be informed, which we have defended from the very beginning,” said Erdal Guven, the editor-in-chief of Diken. “Yet, it is difficult to say that everything is all right.”

Local courts in Turkey have banned access to several VOA Turkish Service stories.

The Access Providers Association, an organization that implements media bans in Turkey, informed VOA Turkish that an Ankara court lifted a 2021 access ban on a news story, citing the recent ruling.

The content, however, is still not accessible in Turkey since a ban on VOA Turkish’s domain name over a licensing issue has been in effect since August 2023.

In January 2022, the Constitutional Court ruled that Article 9 of Law No. 5651 constituted “a structural problem” that caused the violation of freedom of press and expression. According to the court, the measure’s scope and limits were not clear, and the bans were placed without any input from affected media outlets.

The court gave parliament a year to come up with a solution, but lawmakers have taken no action on the matter.

This past January, the Constitutional Court decided to annul the measure, saying it limits freedom of the press. However, the repeal does not take effect until October.

IFOD’s Yaman Akdeniz has criticized the Constitutional Court for taking this long to annul the measure and decide on the caseload that has been growing since 2014.

“Since the article will be in effect until October 10, criminal judgeships of peace will continue to make decisions before the March 31 elections. The danger of censorship continues,” Akdeniz said. March 31 is when local elections are due to be held.

BirGun’s Gultekin also points out that lower courts can still implement access bans very quickly.

“[The courts] can issue an order to block within a few hours. The number of blocked news has recently reached five or six a week; I do not know the exact number,” Gultekin said.

This article originated in VOA’s Turkish Service.

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