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Media Groups Voice Concern about Turkey's Planned Social Media Law


FILE - People shout slogans as they hold placards that read "stop censorship" during a rally in Ankara, Turkey, Jan. 18, 2014.

Social media regulations are expected to be on the agenda for Turkey's national assembly when it reconvenes in October.

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party is preparing a draft law covering false news and disinformation online.

Details of the proposal have not been shared publicly, but unnamed officials cited by local media have said the draft proposes making "disinformation" and "misinformation" an offense and includes prison sentences of up to five years for spreading false news on social media.

The draft also proposes establishing a body similar to the media regulator Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK).

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spoken against the danger of false news and misinformation online. His party's deputy chair Mahir Unal said in mid-July that the party was looking at legal measures, adding, "Combating disinformation is as important as fighting terrorism."

FILE - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks to media in Istanbul, Turkey, June 4, 2019.
FILE - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks to media in Istanbul, Turkey, June 4, 2019.

Journalists and media groups have voiced concern about the proposal, calling for authorities to make the plans public and warning that broadly worded regulations could be used to persecute critical reporting. Others cited the large number of lawsuits already filed against social media users.

"The government has a strange habit," said Turgay Olcayto, adding that everyone who criticizes it is viewed as "an enemy."

The president of the Turkish Journalists' Association was speaking at a press conference Monday alongside four other media unions and rights groups to voice opposition to the proposed law.

Online regulation

The proposed law comes a year after Turkey implemented regulations on social media platforms including requirements that sites have a Turkish representative to handle queries, and deadlines for responding to takedown requests.

In the first month after it was enacted, platforms including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were fined $1.18 million for noncompliance, Reuters reported.

Turkey already has a poor press freedom record, ranking "not free" on the Freedom on the Net report, with a score of 34 out of 100. The annual report by Freedom House assesses countries on a series of factors related to digital rights.

Its most recent analysis, released in September, cited the blocking of hundreds of websites and the new regulations for platforms as reasons for the low score.

"I don't need to say anything about the state of our journalism," Olcayto said. "(The ruling party says) 'We will prevent fake news from being manipulated.' How will you prevent it? It is the government that manipulates and hides news the most."

Olcayto said he does not believe Parliament will pass the bill, but if it was made law, "We will continue to fight."

Authorities want greater control over social media, said Uğur Güç, the Istanbul representative for the Progressive Journalists Association.

"The media has been under pressure for a long time, and 90% of it has been under the control of the government," Güç told VOA Turkish after the press conference.

Social media provided more freedom, but thousands of lawsuits have been filed against social media users as more people moved online, Güç added.

"In the last year, at least 30,000 people were investigated and 5,000 were sentenced. We are talking about huge numbers," Güç said, adding that he believes the aim is to silence the opposition.

Güç has also faced legal threats over his work. He was accused of insulting state institutions in 2019 and acquitted the following year.

Erdogan has dismissed criticism of Turkey's media freedom record, saying "Turkey is incomparably free," in an interview with U.S. broadcaster CBS on Sunday.

When asked about data showing Turkey as a leading jailer of journalists, and comments from lawyers who say thousands are facing lawsuits for insult, the president said, "I know those credible international organizations that have no credit for me."

Media regulator

Journalists are wary of plans to create a social media regulator like RTÜK. The nonprofit Human Rights Watch warned in 2020 that Turkey's regulator is "imposing punitive and disproportionate sanctions" on stations that report critically on the government.

The regulator issued more than 40 sanctions against seven independent stations, and ordered seven programs to be suspended in 2020, Human Rights Watch reported.

Güç said he believes the government will try to create a regulator like RTÜK that can issue punishments or intimidate users with the threat of penalties.

"They want to put more pressure on people and silence people,'' he said.

The chair of the Turkish Writers' Union, Adnan Özyalçıner, also believes the draft law is an attempt to target the critical press.

"Measures are being taken against the critical press through arbitrary and administrative means, not by legal means. (This is) an attempt to counter the critical press," Özyalçıner told VOA Turkish after the press conference.

The union chair raised concerns over who would decide what content is false, and questioned what criteria would be used, saying, "I think all news against the government will be declared 'fake news'."

The journalist organizations have released a joint proposal recommending that the draft law be shared with the public, that journalism should not be criminalized and that freedom of communication and information not be limited.

This story originated in VOA's Turkish service.

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