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Turkey bans YouTube in video flap

A court rules that clips about the nation's revered modern-day founder are an insult.

March 08, 2007|Laura King and Dawn C. Chmielewski | Times Staff Writers

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Looking to check out the latest videos of cavorting kittens and lovelorn lip-synchers on YouTube? If you live in Turkey, you're out of luck.

After receiving a court order, Turkey's largest telecommunications provider Wednesday blocked access to the popular video-sharing website because it featured clips that were seen as insulting to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

The censorship is evidence of YouTube's growing social and political resonance. It also marks the latest battle between Web titans such as YouTube's corporate parent, Google Inc., and foreign governments over free speech on the Internet as the companies expand into new markets.

YouTube and other technologies that allow users to share information "shift power away from central institutions to communities," Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li said. "Whenever you hold a lot of power, you're very threatened when that power is taken away from you. That's what the Internet does, and that is what YouTube is doing."

An Istanbul court ordered the YouTube ban, acting on a prosecutor's recommendation. In Turkey, it is a crime punishable by imprisonment to denigrate "Turkishness" or Ataturk, and the statute is sometimes used to prosecute those who criticize official government policy on a wide range of sensitive issues.

Within hours, visitors signing on to the site from Turkey were greeted with a message in Turkish and English saying that access to the site had been suspended in accordance with the court decision.

Turk Telekom, which has a near-monopoly on Internet access in this country of 70 million people, took no position on whether the video clips in question in fact denigrated Ataturk, a revered figure here.

"We are not in the position of saying that what YouTube did was an insult, that it was right or wrong," Paul Doany, chairman of Turk Telekom, told the state-run Anatolia news agency. "A court decision was proposed to us, and we are doing what that court decision says."

YouTube issued a statement expressing disappointment in the Turkish government's ban.

"The Internet is an international phenomenon, and while technology can bring great opportunity and access to information globally, it can also present new and unique cultural challenges," YouTube said. "We respect the authorities in Turkey and are committed to working with them to resolve this."

Google, which bought YouTube in November for $1.65 billion, drew criticism last year for acceding to the Chinese government's demands that the company block Web searches for material about Taiwan, Tibet, democracy and other sensitive issues.

Yahoo Inc. also was attacked for providing information that helped the Chinese government identify a journalist who was later sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of e-mailing state secrets.

YouTube is only 2 years old, but its growing popularity across the globe has resulted in spats with governments. A Brazilian judge in January banned access to YouTube from that country because of a steamy video involving supermodel Daniela Cicarelli and her boyfriend, a Brazilian banker. The ban was lifted after YouTube removed the video. The state of Victoria in Australia ordered YouTube blocked from 1,600 government schools after a gang of male students used it to circulate their videotaped assault on a 17-year-old girl.

Access to YouTube, with its pop-culture zeitgeist, might not seem like an important fundamental right. But in Turkey, freedom of expression is an explosive issue -- one that has shadowed the government's push to gain membership in the European Union.

The national taboo on freewheeling debate took a lethal turn in January, when newspaper editor Hrant Dink, who had campaigned for Turkey to acknowledge that the deaths of millions of Armenians beginning in 1915 constituted a genocide, was gunned down in daylight outside the offices of his bilingual weekly newspaper.

Turkish journalist Metin Muner called the YouTube ban "seriously worrying" in light of the slaying and continuing restrictions on free speech.

"This is perhaps the beginning of something very unpleasant," said Muner, who writes for the nationally circulated Milliyet newspaper.

The flap showed how even an entertainment-oriented site such as YouTube could become a platform for the airing of historical grudges and grievances. Turkish media reported that in recent days, Greek and Turkish nationalists had been posting inflammatory competing videos on the site.

The Hurriyet newspaper reported Wednesday that YouTube had received tens of thousands of e-mails protesting the depiction of Ataturk as a homosexual, and that the video clips in question had been removed.

Doany of Turk Telekom said access to the site would be restored if the court ruling was rescinded.

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laura.king@latimes.com

dawn.chmielewski@latimes.com

King reported from Istanbul, Chmielewski from Los Angeles.

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