Turkey: New media law heavily criticised

NEWS

New media law heavily criticised
Article from Los Angeles Times

The Turkish parliament approved a controversial bill Wednesday that critics charge will further curtail press freedoms, strengthen media monopolies and weaken the country’s bid to join the European Union.

Under the new law, Turkey’s media barons will no longer be barred from bidding for government contracts. This, critics charge, will make newspaper, radio and television owners more vulnerable to government pressure as they seek to snap up lucrative projects or acquire stakes in state-owned companies earmarked for privatization.
The law will also require Internet sites to submit content to government censors before it can be posted or updated. Under the controversial provision, both Web site owners and Internet service providers will be subject to heavy fines should content be deemed threatening to national security, sexually explicit or libelous. Internet providers have protested the bill by blacking out their home pages and shutting down their services for a day. The law “will deal a serious blow to the Internet in Turkey,” a coalition of media and information technology groups said in a statement. “It is against the spirit of the Internet…. The result will be like burning a blanket to catch a flea,” the statement said.
Turnout Wednesday was low in parliament’s 550-member chamber, with only 292 lawmakers showing up for a stormy 10-hour session during which opponents and sponsors of the bill frequently hurled insults and nearly came to blows.
Islamist opposition parties, a frequent target of the staunchly pro-secular mainstream press, led the protest, but 202 deputies from the three-party ruling coalition voted in favor of the bill, easily securing its passage.

The head of the Turkish government broadcasting watchdog agency, who is among the most vocal critics of the bill, termed it “a dark stain on Turkish democracy.”
“The press will become a vehicle for promoting the interests of its owners and their allies in the government. It is a disgrace,” said Nuri Kayis, whose agency will come under greater government control as a result of the bill, which increases the number of government-appointed members on its board.
One of the law’s chief beneficiaries is Aydin Dogan, a media baron whose stable of national newspapers, television channels and magazines rakes in more than 60% of the country’s advertising revenue. Dogan makes no secret of his desire to bid for government contracts. In a recent interview, he vigorously defended the bill, saying it would make media ownership more transparent and prevent it “from falling in the hands of dangerous groups, who hide behind front companies”.

Yilmaz Karakoyunlu, the minister in charge of broadcasting, said the bill would be “improved” after its passage. But opposition lawmakers said such a move was unlikely amid mounting speculation that the government of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit might fall, forcing early parliamentary elections. What the new law fails to change are existing bans on certain Kurdish-language broadcasts it considers separatist. Owners of numerous radio and television channels in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeastern provinces have been frequently fined and their broadcasts banned for airing Kurdish music.

The European Union is demanding that Turkey lift such bans as one of the conditions for beginning membership negotiations with the Ankara government. An EU spokesman said the bill was “a step back” for democratic reforms in Turkey. Turkey’s president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, vetoed the bill when it was first approved by the parliament last year. But under the constitution, he is powerless to block it a second time and can only appeal for its annulment by the courts.