Turkey’s new “censorship” bill; what to expect?

Turkey’s new “censorship” bill; what to expect?
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What would be the implications of Erdogan's new “disinformation” legislation over news websites and social media platforms

Turkish parliament on Tuesday has started reviewing a new bill which criminalises the spread of “fake” news online.

The controversial bill that was heavily criticised for creating a censorship mechanism in internet media and social media platforms, will introduce prison sentences up to three years for “disinformation”.

The bill 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. 

If a court rules that someone spread misinformation as part of an illegal organization, the jail sentence will increase by 50 percent.

One of the most important concerns over the new legislation arises at this point, is the legal definition of false news.

The media and law circles say that in the bill, there’s no objective or scientific standards that defines what it deems to be fake or lie, warning that this would lead to arbitrary practices. 

Ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections which Erdogan’s and his AKP’s approval ratings are in decline, Turkish government aims to use this new law to put more pressure on dissident and prevent the spread of news that would further hurt its public support, according to the analysts.

And some argues that the main targets of the new law would be economists and economy-related reports. 

The polls show among leading reasons for Erdogan’s losing the electorate’s support is country’s economic situation. People blame the government for mismanagement of the economy.

Inflation in Turkey hit highest levels since the 1990s after the central bank cut interest rates to 12 percent from 19 percent since late last year, despite surging inflation. Turkey’s consumer price index (CPI) surged to 83.5 percent in September, marking the highest level since 1998. However, it still fell far behind unofficial figures. The independent Inflation Research Group ENAG, set up by Turkish academics and argues that the official data is inaccurate, said the annual CPI in September has accelerated to 186.3 percent.

“If you say something or tweet about something about the official inflation statistics, it will be deemed a lie and there may be a court case against you,” Turkish journalist and political scientist Sezin Oney said.

The draft also creates a brand new crime under the Penal Code (TCK); spreading misleading information to the public on purpose.

Within the scope of the new “crime”, sharing and retweeting posts on social media could be considered a crime.

“This crime includes everyone, not just journalists,” said professor Suleyman Irvan.

“For example, when I tweet, I can be prosecuted because of the article I shared. It seems to me that those who make the law actually want to prevent the news they deem as negative on social media,” said Irvan, the head of the Journalism Department of Istanbul’s Uskudar University, in an interview with MedyascopeTV on Wednesday

If the bill passes without any amendments, the head of Turkey’s Information Technology Authority (BTK) would be able to demand information from the social media providers on certain “crimes.”

 If the content on social media is connected to crimes such as “sexual abuse of children, publicly disseminating misleading information, destroying the unity and integrity of the state, crimes against the constitutional order, crimes against state secrets and espionage," the social media providers will be required to share information to access the culprits.

Social media providers will also need to comply with the decision of the BTK to remove content. 

“People have largely focused on the provision of disinformation regarding the censorship law. But there are much more dangerous provisions in the law. The effort to align social media companies that have been tried and failed before may yield results this time and even Twitter may be shut down,” Turkish human rights lawyer Kerem Altiparmak said.

If BTK’s demands are not met, the bandwidth will be reduced by 90 percent, Altiparmak warned.

Social media platforms will need to open offices in Turkey and keep a representative, according to the proposal. If the representatives are individuals, they need to reside in Turkey and be a Turkish citizen.

All news websites will need to save the content they publish. 

It will not be possible to do internet journalism without specifying an imprint. The rules that apply to newspapers will also apply to news websites. 

News websites will be included in the definition of "periodical broadcasting" and will be subject to the Press Law. People working for news websites could apply to press cards.

Journalists will be deprived of their press cards if they are convicted under the law.

Content that constitutes a crime against the activities and personnel of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) will be included in the catalog crimes. Catalog crimes are a limited number of crimes for which some protection measures can be applied.

Main opposition CHP deputy Tuncay Ozkan questioned what the government gets in return for giving MIT such authority, in his parliamentary speech on Tuesday.

With this law, “If an MIT member enters here and murders 600 deputies, you authorize that this will not be reported,” Özkan said.