An advisory body to the pan-European rights defender Council of Europe urged Turkey to withdraw its controversial press law, which the government is pushing through the parliament before looming elections.
The legislation, dubbed the “disinformation law” and the “online censorship law,” has been fiercely criticized by Turkish and international media groups since its submission to parliament last May.
Kerem Altiparmak, a human rights lawyer and one of its fiercest critics, described the bill as worse than all its previous iterations. It adds a new crime called "distributing deceptive information publicly" to the penal code. It also gives the administration new powers to sanction the media with fines, advertising bans and bandwidth throttling.
Turkey already tightened controls on the internet in 2020 with registration requirements for social media companies and forces platforms to remove violating content within 48 hours. Freedom House’s 2021 Report on Freedom on the Net said internet freedom continued to decline for a third year in Turkey, noting that hundreds of websites were blocked, including the news outlet Tele1's YouTube account, which frequently puts out content critical of the government.
Turkey ranks 153rd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index. “In 2021, 241 journalists stood trial, 73 journalists were detained, a radio broadcaster was killed, and 115 journalists were physically attacked,” read an annual report by the Media for Democracy Project of the Ankara-based Association of Journalists.
The Venice Commission, a group of independent experts that provide country-specific advice to the Council of Europe, opined that the present draft law constituted still more “interference with the freedom of expression.” It listed several potential consequences of the draft, including a chilling effect on the press and increased self-censorship, particularly considering the upcoming elections in June 2023.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), and its strategic partner the Iyi Party, fought against the bill in the parliament’s Justice Commission last summer as independent journalists held demonstrations in many Turkish cities.
“We tried to kill the law last term, but the ruling party brought it to the parliament agenda as soon as the new legislative term started,” CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said. “This is still another method to silence the media as Turkey enters its election cycle and keep the lid on government corruption.”
Given parliamentary arithmetic (the ruling Justice and Development Party and its ally the Nationalist Movement Party hold 334 seats in the 584-seat assembly, enough for a simple majority), the law should comfortably pass in the general assembly.
Its first 14 articles have already been approved, but no vote was yet taken on the infamous Article 29 at the time of publication.
Article 29 of the bill calls for sentences of up to one to three years for any person “who publicly disseminates disinformation about the country's domestic and foreign security, public order and general health, with the sole aim of creating anxiety, fear or panic among the public and in a manner that is liable to disturb public peace.”
“If the offense is committed by concealing the true identity of the perpetrator or within the framework of an organization's activities, the punishment is increased by half,” continues the article.
“If enacted, this law will not only affect the media but have a wide-ranging and lasting impact on the freedom of expression and the right to information for the whole society,” said Ilkay Akkaya, secretary-general of the Turkish Journalists Union. “The law introduces a new crime of ‘spreading misleading information to the public.’ The bill, prepared with no consultation whatsoever with professional groups, consists of vague definitions of disinformation and an even vaguer reference to intent. It is subjective and open to abuse.”
The Venice Commission report agreed. Terms in the article, notably “misleading information,” “publicly disseminating,” “disturbance of the public peace,” “public health,” and “in a way conducive” are very broad and vague, it said.
The commission said that during the online meetings and in the comments submitted on Oct. 6, the Turkish authorities declared that penalties of one to three years are “generally enforced in the form of supervision and oversight,” not actual imprisonment. It added, however, that irrespective of actually being imprisoned, a criminal conviction is a serious matter and a person's criminal record entails limitations and adverse effects.
Idris Kardas, the state-run Center for Combatting Disinformation coordinator, brushed off claims that the law could be abused or subjectively interpreted. “For an act to fall under this category and be punished by imprisonment, it should have not one or two but five elements: The news disseminated should be false; it should be related to national security or public health; it should aim to create panic, fear or anxiety; it should aim at disrupting public peace and should reach a wide public,” he told the newspaper Oksijen. “The law does not target journalists who do their job correctly or social media users who share [misinformation] out of ignorance or post things emotionally.”
“Those who defended this censorship law said similar laws were in place in European countries," tweeted Altiparmak. "The Venice Commission’s report denies that. So it seems that those who want to combat disinformation are spreading disinformation themselves.”
Altiparmak raised the alarm on the draft law last spring. “I am not sure the scope of the law is fully realized,” he said, calling it “a back door” to slapping further controls on international social networks. “Let us say that you have claimed misconduct at the ballot box through an anonymous account. A prosecutor may swiftly decide this is disinformation and demand your account information from Twitter. If Twitter fails to provide the information, it can be blocked for up to four hours” on that critical day.
“The bill provides a framework for extensive censorship of online information and the criminalization of journalism, which will enable the government to subdue further and control public debate in the lead-up to Turkey’s general elections in 2023,” read a joint statement by 25 international media organizations, including Freedom House, Pen English and Reporters without Borders.
A media freedoms mission led by the International Press Institute with participation by Freedom House and Amnesty International will hold a press conference Friday to express their concerns about the law and the overall state of press freedom in Turkey.
Kardas’ center, whose launch last year caused concern among journalists, has already started a weekly newsletter to expose what it identifies as disinformation. This week’s edition, shared only in WhatsApp groups and not on the organization's website, warns of claims in the Greek media that Turkish authorities pushed irregular migrants toward Greece and reports that Turkey lacked an adequate supply of natural gas this winter.
“We plan to do this weekly to expose fake news,” Kardas told the independent website T24.