A years-old piece of draft legislation that seeks to criminalize the spread of disinformation is moving toward a vote in the Turkish parliament. The bill is being met with deep concern by media rights groups across the country.
If passed, the so-called "disinformation" law put forward by ruling majority parliamentarians would carry a sentence of up to three years in prison for the spread of fake new or disinformation as defined by government officials.
Newly drafted proposals are laid out across 40 articles, including some that would target social media users and regulate digital media. If passed, the bill would consider digital media outlets as conventional media and subject them to the same rights and regulations as print and broadcast outlets, including the eligibility to apply for press cards and provisions around access to state advertising revenue.
Skeptics of the proposed law say the bill could be used to pressure digital media before the upcoming elections in Turkey. The next presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for June 2023, but the opposition parties are calling for snap elections, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rejected.
“We are concerned that if this bill becomes law before the elections, it will be used as a tool of silencing,” Faruk Eren, head of the press union of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey, told VOA. “There are vague terms such as 'fake news and false news' in the bill. The government already calls every news that disturbs it [a] 'lie' or 'unfounded.' Now they will try to silence the digital media by using this law.”
The proposal’s signatories, however, say that the bill is needed to protect people from “slander, insults, smears, defamation, hatred and discrimination.” They also argue that such regulations on disinformation are enforced by Western countries, including the United States and European countries.
“Similar regulations are being implemented in Europe,” Mahir Unal, parliamentary group deputy chairman for Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said in a nationally televised interview.
Turkey already has a poor record for media rights, ranking 149 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders's (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, where No. 1 is freest. In the report, Paris-based RSF describes Turkey as a country in which “all possible means are used to undermine critics."
More press cards, more potential violations
Some observers call parts of the bill a step in the right direction for press freedoms in Turkey, such as granting digital reporters eligibility to apply for press cards, which have been a controversial issue in Turkey.
RSF and the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists say the Turkish government has politicized the press card issuance process — which has been run by the presidential communications directorate since 2018 — and discriminated against independent journalists.
“One of the most important regulations in this proposal is considering digital media as conventional media and enabling them to apply for press cards," Mustafa Gokhan Teksen, an Ankara-based lawyer, told VOA. "This would provide the opportunity of job security for journalists in digital media.”
On the other hand, Teksen said other articles in the bill propose new offenses in the Turkish penal code.
Yaman Akdeniz, a cyberlaw professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, thinks that subjecting digital and conventional media to the same guidelines looks good on paper but, in reality, it comes with specific punitive regulations.
“Not only will decisions to block access and remove content be sent to news websites, but also there will be applications like rebuttal in the press law,” Akdeniz told VOA.
Another section seen as troubling by media rights analysts is Article 29, which allows for jail sentences of up to three years for those who “disseminate misleading information to the public” that disturbs public order and “creates fear and panic.”
The proposed article includes language referring to Turkey’s foreign and domestic security, along with issues of public order and health.
Akdeniz is concerned that Article 29 defines the violations too broadly, such that the language could be exploited against dissidents, media outlets and journalists if the bill becomes the law.
“We are entering a period where we will see more self-censorship due to the expansion of a pre-existing environment of fear with vague definitions,” Akdeniz said. “We will see that investigation of crime will be opened against media outlets because of their coverage, and journalists will be prosecuted for disinformation crimes.”
The bill also recommends restrictions and penalties for social media companies and individual users deemed to have spread disinformation, with expanded sentences for those who do so anonymously.
Under Article 34, social media companies will be required to appoint representatives holding Turkish citizenship and residing in the country. The representatives will be required to follow legally binding content removal requests and hand over personal data about users. Failure to do could result in "bans, fines and even prison sentences for international companies.”
Akdeniz says that a separate social media law passed in 2020 paved the way for Article 34.
“Back then, [critics of the law warned] social media platforms, 'Don't open offices in Turkey; if you give [the Turkish government] an inch, it will take a yard.’ Now, this looks like it is happening,” Akdeniz said.
If the bill becomes the law, Akdeniz said, “social media platforms that do not comply with these regulations would be punished" and possibly face state-backed bandwidth restrictions.
Article 22 covers access to state advertising revenue, including the Press Advertising Agency’s powers to issue penalties and control the appeals process.
Critics say a proposal in Article 22 that allows advertising penalties to be issued without trial, regardless of the appeals process, is particularly threatening for opposition newspapers.
The proposed bill, which passed parliament’s digital media commission with minor changes on June 2, is currently being examined by the justice commission.
The bill is expected to go up for a vote later this month.
This story originated in VOA's Turkish Service.