After taking full control of traditional media, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began silencing dissenting voices on YouTube. Making use of the platform’s community guidelines and copyright policy, public broadcaster TRT has secured the closure of dozens of channels and the removal of thousands of videos. People whose channels were shut down believe TRT is misusing YouTube’s rules and that the platform has taken a stance that is biased in favor of TRT as the bigger player.
YouTube, the world’s leading video broadcasting medium, also is a major destination for Internet users in Turkey, where it is the second most visited website and where people spend a daily average of seven hours and 29 minutes online.
In the summer the Turkish parliament passed legislation at Erdoğan’s request, bringing far-reaching restrictions on social media platforms with over 1 million daily visitors in Turkey.
The law, which concerns YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, went into effect at the beginning of October, and the first stage of non-compliance sanctions led to authorities imposing sanctions in the millions of lira on the companies.
While Erdoğan has not managed to break the platforms’ resistance entirely, his administration began using state-owned TRT as an alternative method of censorship to silence channels critical of the government broadcasting on YouTube.
Rising number of YouTube channels shut down at TRT’s request
With its 14 television channels, TRT is also one of the biggest Turkish content providers on YouTube. It operates dozens of channels on YouTube, and its content is viewed millions of times every month.
TRT recently began using this leverage as a political tool to target government critics on the platform.
Copyright infringement, to which YouTube is considerably sensitive, is the most frequently used complaint by TRT in its requests.
Bold Medya, which has over 200,000 subscribers, is one of TRT’s latest victims. The channel is known for its harsh criticism of Erdoğan. TRT recently claimed copyright over two of Bold Medya’s videos and successfully had YouTube remove them, despite the fact that both were authentic content created by Bold Medya without using any material belonging to TRT. YouTube however, without examining the videos, accepted the complaint lodged by TRT, which has millions of subscribers.
Harun Tokak, a Danish-based Turkish journalist, is one of the people whose channels were shut down at TRT’s request. The channel, on which Tokak used to post videos of only himself, was shut down twice by TRT, which claimed copyright infringement in videos shot in Tokak’s own home. The journalist’s objections that the videos only featured himself did not change the outcome.
‘The small fish is always fed to the bigger fish’
Mustafa Kılıç, secretary-general of the International Journalists Association (IJA), said government critics are purposefully targeted on YouTube and that this is just the beginning.
“YouTube feeds the small fish to the bigger fish. While strict copyright regulations are natural and acceptable in music, movies or TV series, what we are seeing is the Erdoğan regime using public broadcaster TRT to target journalism,” Kılıç said.
“TRT claims copyright over entirely authentic content produced by independent journalists and thus has hundreds of videos removed. It is nothing but the manipulation of YouTube’s copyright rules and community guidelines by Erdoğan for political purposes.”
“This is just a beginning for the government-critical media. The practice will become more widespread when YouTube appoints a representative to Turkey,” he said.
“YouTube’s silence on TRT’s manipulation strengthens Turkey’s climate of oppression as platforms such as YouTube and Twitter are the only remaining mediums where the government’s opponents can voice their dissent.”
TRT’s abuse of YouTube’s ‘Content Management System’
The Turkish-based owner of a content management agency who closely follows YouTube-related legal issues spoke about the situation on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“TRT’s most frequently used tool is the Content Management System [CMS], which YouTube grants to large companies. TRT introduces online applications claiming that video content belongs to it when it actually does not, and within 30 seconds the video is automatically deleted from YouTube.”
“For channels critical of the government, this can be repeated three times, after which YouTube’s mechanism of channel closure over triple copyright infringement is invoked to shut it down. TRT is a major content provider on YouTube, and the government is ingeniously using this position to silence dissenting voices.”
The CMS was developed for large companies such as Warner Bros and Fox News to readily protect their copyrights.
Another method also used via major content providers such as TRT is introducing complaints based on violation of YouTube’s community guidelines, which entails having videos removed by reporting them for alleged terrorist propaganda.
One of those targeted by TRT is Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who has been imprisoned on terrorism-related charges since 2016.
At TRT’s request, YouTube has removed Demirtaş’s 2014 presidential election campaign videos.
‘I had to leave YouTube’
Content producer Erol Dizdar’s channel was also shut down in similar circumstances. Dizdar says his completely authentic videos were targeted by TRT’s copyright infringement applications and removed.
TRT’s request led to the closure of three channels started by Dizdar.
“I decided to move to Dailymotion after I became convinced that I could no longer broadcast on YouTube,” Dizdar said.
Censorship on parliamentary channel
Also targeted by TRT is Meclis TV, a channel owned by the Turkish parliament that broadcasts speeches in the general assembly. Normally, everyone has the right to use its footage free of charge.
TRT, however, reports and secures the removal of some of its videos containing harsh criticism by opposition deputies, particularly those that go viral. As a result, the opposition deputies, who are already banned from the traditional media, face censorship on social media as well.
HRW reacts to YouTube
Human Right Watch (HRW) in a written statement condemned the increasing censorship on YouTube and the company’s recent decision to appoint a legal representative to Turkey, in line with the Erdoğan government’s new regulations.
“YouTube announced on December 16, 2020, that it will appoint a local representative in Turkey to comply with the country’s recently amended internet law, making it much more susceptible to content removal and take-down requests by the Turkish authorities,” HRW said.
“Such a move will inevitably lead to an increase in arbitrary censorship, compromise people’s privacy and right of access to information, and could implicate YouTube in human rights violations.
“The decision also sets a dangerous precedent that makes it harder for other tech companies to refuse to appoint a local representative in Turkey and more difficult for YouTube and other companies to refuse to appoint local representatives in countries around the world with weak rule of law frameworks and equally problematic legislation that may require it. Rather than cooperate with this form of state interference with freedom of expression, YouTube should be a partner in efforts to challenge the law and champion the right to free speech.”