Press freedom organisations warn bill will ‘subdue public debate’ in run-up to next year’s general elections
Lawmaker Burak Erbay (on screen) smashes his phone with a hammer during a speech to the Turkish Grand National Assembly, warning MPs that if the controversial ‘fake news’ bill passes, ‘break your phones like this, you will not need to use it’. Photograph: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images
https://www.theguardian.com-Ruth Michaelson in Istanbul
Turkey’s parliament has ratified a sweeping new law that would see those accused of spreading disinformation jailed for up to three years.
The controversial bill, proposed by the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), contains wide-ranging provisions intended to rein in domestic journalism as well as social media. A coalition of 22 press freedom organisations said the bill “provides a framework for extensive censorship of online information and the criminalisation of journalism, which will enable the government to further subdue and control public debate in the lead up to Turkey’s general elections in 2023”.
Turkish lawmaker smashes phone with hammer during speech – video
The new law means those found guilty of intentionally publishing disinformation or “fake news” that the authorities claim spreads panic, endangers security forces or the overall health of Turkish society could be sentenced to up to three years in prison. The bill also specifies that sentences can be increased by up to half if anonymous accounts are used to spread alleged disinformation.
“It criminalises what the authorities call disinformation without defining what that actually means,” said the journalist Emre Kızılkaya, head of the Turkish branch of the Vienna-based International Press Institute, one of the organisations to condemn the bill. “A judge will decide how to define disinformation and intent, which really gives arbitrary powers to the government to criticise journalism.”
Journalists, press freedom watchdogs and even the Council of Europe condemned the bill as it slowly moved through its debate stages in Turkey’s parliament, urging the government to drop it before it became law. The bill passed late on Thursday night with few amendments, despite fierce opposition including the lawmaker Burak Erbay smashing his phone with a hammer during a speech to the chamber in protest. “You only have one freedom, it is the phone in your pocket … if this law passes you can break your phones like this, you will not need to use it,” he told MPs.
Turkey currently ranks 149 out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index for 2022, and campaigners fear these additional restrictions will affect the media’s ability to accurately cover Turkey’s forthcoming election, expected in or before June.
Campaigners, including the Turkish Journalists’ Union (TGS), also criticised the government over the choice to consult American social media companies over the bill while failing “to seek the views of the journalism organisations in Turkey who will be directly affected”.
“Something that no democracy should see has taken place here, which is that the ruling coalition prepared a bill completely about the information ecosystem and the press without consulting any media organisation or journalists,” said Kızılkaya.
Turkish authorities previously clashed with Meta, Facebook’s owner, over a demand that every social media company with more than 1 million users appoint a local representative required to answer to the government, and to store users’ data locally.
The new law will also require messaging applications such as WhatsApp, also owned by Meta, to provide user information to the state when requested by the country’s Information and Communication Technologies Authority.
“This will also force digital platforms like Google News or Facebook to reveal their algorithms to the government, showing the Turkish state what content they boost and what they suppress,” said Kızılkaya. “It’s unprecedented anywhere in the world.”
TGS recently warned the new law will “drastically change the media climate in the country but greatly circumvent freedom of expression”. They added that the new law contains clauses that could vastly curtail advertising revenue needed to sustain local news outlets and lead to a deluge of lawsuits against news websites.
“In the run-up to the upcoming elections, a clear ‘no’ must be given to all legislative arrangements allowing state institutions an arbitrary vice-like grip over news sources aiming to provide the public with accurate information,” they added.