Istanbul, July 1 – Turkey has cut off access to public broadcasters from Germany and the United States, threatening to stoke new diplomatic tensions during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
An Ankara court barred access to Deutsche Welle and Voice of America on Thursday night, after the two failed to apply for local broadcast licenses required by regulations introduced this year.
The two argued that a local license issued by Turkish media regulator RTUK would undermine their independence and allow Ankara to censor their content.
Rights advocates said Turkey’s move underscores the erosion of freedom of expression ahead of next year’s general election, the toughest in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s two-decade rule.
It also threatens to trigger new tensions in Turkey’s relations with two of its most important Western allies and trading partners.
Broadcasters spent dark hours after a NATO summit in which Erdogan received praise from US President Joe Biden for dropping his objections to Sweden and Finland joining the Western defense alliance .
The US State Department criticized the new rules when they took effect in February, stressing that a “free press is essential to a strong democracy”.
The new media regulations apply to foreign providers of Turkish audio and video content.
Both news portals were inaccessible in Turkey on Friday without the use of VPN technology that masks users’ locations.
The two shared instructions on their social media accounts on using VPN to access their content.
Deutsche Welle chief executive Peter Limbourg said his agency refused to apply for a Turkish license because it would harm independent broadcasting.
“In our extensive correspondence, as well as in personal conversations with the head of the media monitoring agency, we have explained why DW cannot apply for such a license,” Limbourg said in a statement.
“For example, licensed media in Turkey are obliged to remove online content that RTUK deems inappropriate. This is unacceptable for an independent media organization,” he added.
“DW will take legal action against the access ban now imposed.”
– ‘Criminal cases’ –
Press freedom advocates and the opposition are increasingly concerned about the perceived erosion of media freedoms in Turkey, where most news media are in the hands of pro-pro-government businessmen. government or controlled by the state.
Erol Onderoglu of Reporters Without Borders called the cut in access a “problematic move” aimed at helping Erdogan’s ruling party ahead of the election.
Ilhan Tasci, a member of Turkey’s media regulator representing the main opposition CHP party, said the decision called into question whether Turkey was still an “advanced democracy”.
Turkey, where dozens of journalists have been imprisoned since a failed coup in 2016, is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index.
At a Thursday press conference after the NATO summit, Erdogan was visibly flustered by suggestions that he was muzzling the press.
“Currently, in my country, there are no journalists in prison because of their opinions. There are only criminal cases,” Erdogan said.
Erdogan’s ruling AKP party also wants to push through another law that could see people jailed for three years for spreading “disinformation” – a bill protested by journalists’ organisations.
The government said it would debate the bill in October, backing down from a previous attempt to rush it through parliament.