Turkey has banned access to two international public broadcasters, striking a blow to freedom of expression in the country and risking renewed tensions with the west.

The websites of Germany’s Deutsche Welle and the Turkish-language version of US public radio service Voice of America were blocked by an Ankara court on Thursday night after they refused to comply with a request to obtain a broadcast licence.

The two outlets had argued that being regulated by the country’s broadcast watchdog would lead to demands that would be tantamount to censorship.

Responding to the ban, DW’s director Peter Limbourg said that the company had outlined in discussions with the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) why it could not comply with the request to obtain a permit, including the fact that licensed media in Turkey are required to delete content that the watchdog deems inappropriate.

“This is simply unacceptable for an independent broadcaster,” he said. “DW will take legal action against the blocking that has now taken place.”

Following the announcement, both DW and VOA shared information via social media on how to circumvent the ban using virtual private networks and similar technologies.

RTÜK threatened the ban this year after a dispute with the news outlets over their operations in Turkey. The watchdog argued that, because they produced Turkish language on-demand and live video reports as well as text-based news stories, the foreign outlets should comply with a law requiring online broadcasters to have a licence.

Critics saw the move as the latest effort by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government to crack down on dissenting voices.

Following the announcement of the ban, İlhan Taşçı, an opposition member of the board of the RTÜK, commented sarcastically on Twitter: “This is press freedom and advanced democracy!” 

International outlets — especially those with Turkish-language services — have become an important source of news for people in Turkey seeking an alternative to the mainstream media, which have been largely bought by business interests friendly to the president.

But the media, along with social media sites such as Twitter and YouTube, have been ensnared in the government’s efforts to curb free speech even as they have become a haven for opposition voices.

The ban on two big international news outlets is likely to exacerbate strains between Turkey and the US at a time when Erdoğan, who on Wednesday met US president Joe Biden on the sidelines of a Nato summit, is seeking Washington’s approval for a request to buy F-16 fighter jets.

The US state department spoke out against the impending ban in February, with department spokesperson Ned Price warning: “A free media is essential to a robust democracy.”

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