ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey will expand the powers of its radio and television watchdog to include overseeing online content providers, under a draft law submitted to parliament on Thursday which the main opposition party said amounted to digital censorship.
The regulation would allow the RTUK watchdog to halt audio and video material streamed online, social media posts and films offered by Internet-based providers like Netflix if they are deemed a threat to national security or moral values.
President Tayyip Erdogan and his government have been criticized by opposition parties, rights groups and Western allies who say he has sharply curtailed freedom of speech and basic freedoms, especially in the wake of a 2016 coup attempt.
The main opposition secular Republican People Party (CHP) has criticized the proposed expansion of the watchdog’s powers.
“(This) is the prevention of broadcasting by denying licenses through RTUK. We live in the digital world,” CHP spokesman Bulent Tezcan said on Wednesday.
Turkey’s Transport, Maritime and Communication Minister Ahmet Arslan said earlier this week the regulation was not aimed at censoring “work being done within our normal moral values”, but rather at “preventing wrongs”.
“Freedoms are not limitless... If a broadcast that can harm the country’s national security, survival, and our people’s moral judgments is being done, then it is interfered with,” Arslan told reporters.
If the regulation is passed as it currently stands, it will grant RTUK the ability to issue or reject broadcasting licenses without providing a reason, giving it full power over who can publish content, human rights lawyer Kerem Altiparmak said.
Altiparmak said the draft law left unclear how the watchdog could regulate international outlets, such as Netflix, and what kind of punishment it could impose if they reject or fail to adhere to RTUK’s warnings.
The pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) called on Thursday for the formation of a commission to ensure Internet freedom, saying the issue had become “one of the fundamental problems” in Turkey.
“The Internet, which facilitates the spread of information and organization of the public, is being put under surveillance by political actors trying to prevent citizens from getting information,” HDP lawmaker Filiz Kerestecigolu said.
Since the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, authorities have jailed more than 50,000 people, sacked or suspended another 150,000 and closed more than 150 media outlets over alleged links to the failed putsch.
Monitoring groups have also accused Turkey of blocking access to social media sites, particularly in the aftermath of militant attacks. The government has denied the accusation.
Last year, Turkey’s telecommunications watchdog said access to online encyclopedia Wikipedia had been blocked, citing a law allowing it to ban access to websites deemed a threat to national security.
Scenes showing alcohol and cigarette consumption are blurred out in most television broadcasts, and scenes involving physical intimacy are often cut out from cable and premium programming.
Arslan, however, said there was no censorship on television programming in Turkey, adding every channel could broadcast “within the scales of fairness and moral judgments”.
Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Nevzat Devranoglu and Gulsen Solaker; Editing by Dominic Evans and Janet Lawrence