Turkey's media regulator blocked access Thursday to the Turkish language services of Voice of America and Deutsche Welle after the international public broadcasters did not apply for licenses the regulator had requested.
In February, the Radio and Television Supreme Council, known as RTUK, gave three international broadcasters, including Voice of America's Turkish Service, short notice to obtain broadcast licenses or have their content blocked. That order also included Germany's Deutsche Welle.
Ilhan Tasci, an RTUK board member from the main opposition Republican People's Party and vocal critic of the licensing demand, announced Thursday on Twitter that access to Deutsche Welle's Turkish-language service, DW Turkce, and VOA had been blocked by a court decision.
'Access to DW Turkce and Voice of America, which did not apply for licenses, has been blocked by the Ankara Criminal Court of Peace, upon the request of the RTUK board,' Tasci said Thursday. 'Here is your freedom of press and advanced democracy!' he added sarcastically.
The February licensing decision was based on a regulation that went into effect in August 2019. At that time, several media freedom advocates raised concerns about possible censorship because the regulation granted RTUK the authority to control all online content.
RTUK's deputy head, Ibrahim Uslu, dismissed the censorship criticisms, saying the decision 'has nothing to do with censorship but is part of technical measures.'
Under the regulation, RTUK has been authorized to request broadcast licenses from 'media service providers' in order for their radio, TV broadcasting and on-demand audiovisual media services to continue their online presence.
The regulation allows RTUK to impose fines, suspend broadcasting for three months or cancel broadcast licenses if the licensees do not follow RTUK's principles.
With this decision, the authority of RTUK over news websites was used for the first time, said Can Guleryuzlu, president of the Progressive Journalists Association.
VOA and Deutsche Welle 'reported on many issues that were followed by millions and that the national press could not bring to the agenda,' and 'with the last decision of the judiciary, [that] has been blocked. The judiciary turned its face not to justice but to the government in Turkey," Guleryuzlu added.
Yaman Akdeniz, a cyberlaw professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, told VOA Turkish "complete access blocking to these news websites can only be described as censorship."
FILE - The logo of German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle is pictured in Berlin, Jan. 30, 2020.
The court's decision to block access to VOA Turkish came on the heels of the meeting between President Joe Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid.
The U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A spokesperson for VOA in February confirmed the network was aware of the RTUK demand.
'VOA believes any governmental efforts to silence news outlets is a violation of press freedom, a core value of all democratic societies,' the spokesperson, Bridget Serchak, said.
'Should the Turkish government formally block our websites, VOA will make every effort to ensure that its Turkish-speaking audience retains access to a free and open internet using all available methods,' she added.
DW's director-general, Peter Limbourg, said in February that the broadcaster would appeal the decision.
In a statement published by DW, he said the request would give 'Turkish authorities the option to block the entire service based on individual, critical reports unless these reports are deleted.'
Turkey has a poor record for press freedom, ranking 149th out of 180 countries, where 1 is freest, on the World Press Freedom Index.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which compiles the annual index, says that discriminatory practices against media in Turkey are commonplace and that the RTUK 'helps to weaken critical TV channels economically, by giving them heavy fines.'
Ezel Sahinkaya and Begum Ersoz of VOA's Turkish Service contributed to this report. Some information came from Reuters.