Turkish journalists groups on Tuesday protested a draft law the government says is aimed at combating fake news and disinformation but which critics denounce as yet another attempt to stifle freedom of expression.
Parliament was set to debate a 40-article piece of legislation that amends multiple laws governing press, advertising and social media. The most controversial change is an amendment to the press law that would criminalize the spreading of "fake news" with a sentence of up to three years in prison.
Critics, including opposition lawmakers and nongovernmental organizations, say the law is too vague and could potentially be abused by the government to further crack down on independent journalism, especially media that has developed on the internet.
The government already controls most major news outlets and has been named among the world's biggest jailers of journalists.
Representatives of various Turkish journalist associations wearing black face masks gathered outside parliament in Ankara, urging legislators not to pass the law, which was submitted to parliament in May.
"As journalists, in line with our responsibility to society, we once again warn both legislators and the public: If this law is implemented in this form, there will be no freedom of press, expression and communication in our country," said Kemal Aktas, head of the Parliamentary Correspondents Association.
Meanwhile, main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu claimed in a speech on Tuesday that Erdogan's government, which faces elections in June, introduced the changes to prevent the dissemination of allegations of corruption against the government.
International media freedom organizations have also called for the dismissal of the bill, saying it puts millions of internet users at risk of criminal action for online posts the government disagrees with, could become a tool "for harassing journalists and activists" and could lead to self-censorship.
Disinformation is an important issue and needs to be combated but not at the price of restricting journalists' rights and the public's rights of freedom of expression," the groups, including PEN and the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in June.
Article 29 of the bill is an amendment to the Turkish penal code mandating one to three years in prison for spreading information that is "contrary to the truth" about Turkey's domestic and international security, public order and health for the alleged purpose of causing "public worry, fear and panic." The sentence can be increased by a half if that crime is committed by an anonymous user or as part of an organization.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has argued for a law to combat disinformation, saying fake news and rising "digital fascism" is a national and global security issue.
The proposal, put forth by his ruling Justice and Development Party and its nationalist ally, says fake news and its dissemination or disinformation pose a "serious threat" by preventing people to access the truth, while also undermining freedom of expression and information by "abusing certain freedoms."
The proposal also says the internet allows ill-intentioned users to hide their identities for illegal acts and posts like attacks, slander, hate speech and discrimination, therefore requiring regulation. It says the state has the obligation to protect rights and freedoms, especially for people whose rights were violated online.