ANKARA, March 22 (Reuters) - Turkey's parliament has approved a bill granting the radio and television watchdog authority to regulate online content, fuelling concerns about further restrictions on the media.
The move closes a loophole under which some Turkish broadcasters have sought refuge from censorship and strict regulations by moving to online streaming platforms.
It follows sharp criticism by rights groups and Turkey's Western allies of restrictions on the media following the 2016 failed coup against President Tayyip Erdogan.
Two local streaming websites, PuhuTV and BluTV, have produced popular shows in the past year whose content and language would likely be censored if broadcast on television.
PuhuTV's thriller about a psychologist who falls in love with a dancer includes strong language and erotic scenes that would not be screened on Turkish television.
The worldwide streaming service Netflix is also currently working on a show with Turkey's TV industry.
The bill requires broadcasters wishing to stream content online to be licensed by the RTUK watchdog, subjecting them to the same criteria as TV broadcasters. RTUK will be able to report unlicenced shows to a criminal court which can ban them.
"A possibility is being created for institutions wishing to stream radio and television content only over the internet to receive a licence for only this purpose," the law reads, adding that these broadcasters currently avoid content regulation as well as taxes.
"This way, the broadcasts in question will be subject to the same content supervision by RTUK as those broadcasts on landline, satellite and cable."
In the past, RTUK has censored, fined or halted shows and other programs for inappropriate content - usually due to coarse language, sexual content or the consumption of alcohol and tobacco products.
A member of the RTUK board from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) said the licensing process had been made more difficult by a recent decree that requires the approval of the license by the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) and the Security General Directorate (EGM).
Licences for pro-government organisations are approved far quicker than potential critics, Ismet Demirdogen told Reuters. "There are licence requests that have been on hold for a year and a half."
Turkey's post-coup crackdown has seen dozens of independent media outlets shut down for what the government says are links to terrorism. The Turkish Journalists Association says that as of January, there were 154 journalists in jail.
The bill was passed late on Wednesday, hours before business group Dogan Holding confirmed it had started talks to sell its $890 million media arm to the pro-government Demiroren Holding, a deal seen as further cementing media support for Erdogan.
Baris Yarkadas, a CHP lawmaker, said the sale of Dogan media group, as well as the passing of the new law, were an attempt by the AKP to "tighten the screws" before presidential and parliamentary elections next year.
"The ruling party does not want to leave any media space for the opposition to express itself ahead of the elections." (Reporting by Gulsen Solaker Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen Editing by Dominic Evans and Richard Balmforth)