Turkey under censorship: What does the new “disinformation” bill mean?

Turkey under censorship: What does the new “disinformation” bill mean?
Update: 04 October 2022 20:22
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Spreading “fake news” online constitutes a crime under the new legislation, a move that analysts see as President Erdogan’s maneuver ahead of the elections

Turkish lawmakers are set to vote a new legislation on Tuesday, which criminalises the spread of “fake” news online.

The controversial bill that was heavily criticised for creating a censorship mechanism and seen as a move of the government to further tighten its grip on dissident, will introduce prison sentences up to three years for “disinformation”.

What is the “Disinformation Bill”?

The “Proposed Law on Amendments to the Law on the Press and Some Other Laws,” popularly known as the “law on combatting disinformation" was proposed to the parliament by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its far-right ally, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in May.

If the parliament approves the bill containing of 40 articles, those who are deemed to have “publicly disseminated false information regarding national security, public order, or general public health that creates anxiety, fear, or panic among the population or disturbs public peace,” will face prison sentences of between one and three years. 

According to journalist Orsan Oymen, the bill is reminiscent of the practices of Germany during the Nazi era. Describing the legislation as a “bill of despotism,” the approval would mean the violation of all articles of the Constitution on freedom of thought, expression, and publication, he said in an article for Cumhuriyet newspaper.

“What is intended to be done with this bill is to establish a de facto state of emergency during the election process,” Oymen said.

Erdogan is facing presidential and parliamentary elections by June next year, amid decreasing public support. Growing authoritarianism and mismanagement of the economy are some of the main reasons for Erdogan to lose popularity among the voters, according to the latest polls. 

Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor, and a cyber-rights defender told Deutsche Welle (DW) that the incomprehensible nature of the crime included in the bill is going to cause difficulties in practice.

"Actually, it is an incomprehensible type of crime on paper. It has been defined rather broadly and is open to being applied arbitrarily. It seems that it will be used frequently in the upcoming election period. We will see that prosecutors start initiating investigations into news with a big impact and into social media content," Akdeniz said.

Opposition to the bill

The representatives of the Turkish Journalists Association (TGC), the Journalists’ Union of Turkey (TGS), Turkish Writers' Union (TYS), DISK Basin-Is, Press Council, PEN Writers Foundation, and Turkey Publishers Association held a press conference on Monday, criticising the bill.

The TGS Secretary General Ilkay Akkaya said the bill will damage democracy the most.

“This social media law, this 'censorship law', which was put forward under the pretext of preventing disinformation that will normalise ll sorts of censorship, would only have one result: more repression and more imprisonment, ” TYS Chair Adnan Ozyalciner said.

According to Faruk Eren, the chairman of the DISK Basin-Is union, the government is trying to trick all with the 'Disinformation Law'.

“The government is aiming for a completely silent media in the period leading up to the elections, and this law is being prepared for this reason," he said.

Meanwhile, the Journalists’ Union of Turkey protested the bill in six provinces.

“We are on the streets against the bill prepared to increase censorship, not the fight against disinformation. We want this unconstitutional bill to be withdrawn. No to the silencing, intimidation, incarceration law,” the union said.

The international journalism groups also raised voice against the new legislation.

In a joint statement in June, 23 international journalism organizations, including the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) urged Turkish government to withdraw the bill.

“Disinformation is an important issue and needs to be combatted but not at the price of restricting journalists' rights and the public's rights of freedom of expression”, the joint statement read.

Cracks within the AKP

Turkey’s news website Diken, citing sources from the AKP, has reported that some members of Erdogan’s ruling party also warned that “the bill could hurt themselves and their prestige.” 

A small number of AKP members think that proposing imprisonment for “fake” news goes beyond its purpose.

Arguing that the related article of the bill is open to interpretation, these AKP members are asking the article to be changed, Diken said.