“Although tackling disinformation is important to ensure quality information, free public debate and elections and, therefore, democratic processes, in Türkiye it has gone the opposite direction” writes our intern Namik Berk Vurkir who has left the country due to persecution and wide-ranging restrictions of media, internet, and press.
On the 18th of October, the Turkish government passed an omnibus bill of 40 Articles, which threatens freedom of expression inside Türkiye, and even citizens of other countries. It imposes several changes to on the Press Law and other related laws, particularly; it extends the reach of existing Press Law to independent news websites and private persons, gives the reins on advertisement rights of these websites into the hands of the government, and finally sets up a legal basis for forced extraterritoriality by leveraging on soft-power in case of non-compliance.
A bit of history, back in March 2020, the Turkish Government enacted a law dubbed as “Social Media Regulation” . According to Article 6 of this law, platforms with more than 1 million user access count must designate a representative in Türkiye and also store the data of Turkish Citizens in Turkish soil. If they do not satisfy these requirements, they would be fined and access to their services would be either limited or blocked. These requirements would allow the Turkish Government to have a contact point for requesting erasure of content that is not seen as appropriate by them, and to easily access the personal details of persons that created this content since data is localized. However, two years later, on the 18th of October, the Turkish Government enacted a supportive addition , which now directly threatens freedom of expression and information, and indirectly the privacy and security of persons that wish to use their freedoms on the internet.
Interestingly, Article 1 of the bill states that the sole purpose of this Law was to determine the freedom of the press and the principles related to the use of this freedom, while Article 29 imposes great danger against freedom of expression and freedom of the press: “Anyone who publicly disseminates false information regarding the internal and external security, public order, and general health of the country, with the sole motive of creating anxiety, fear, or panic among the public, in a way that is suitable for disturbing the public peace, is sentenced to imprisonment from one year to three years.”
As we can see, the law is written vaguely, does not speak about how false information is to be determined, and who is to decide its falsehood. There are also no mentions in the law about the existence of a supervisory authority or a mechanism to prevent arbitrary decisions. This makes this law even more dangerous as anything can be labeled as fake news or a means to cause panic among the public. Considering this law also extends to real persons, personal liberty is curtailed as expressing thoughts on social media is now dangerous.
To demonstrate a portion of their reach, we can give an example through France24s news article about the inflation rate in Türkiye, where; the Turkish Statistics Institute announced the inflation rate was at 73.5%, but ENAG (an independent group of researchers on inflation) has contested this rate, claimed the actual rate was at around 160.80%.
According to the new laws, if this article was published by a local press or an international agency with an associated local branch or an outlet operating in Türkiye (like BBC, DW, Euronews, VOA etc.), the Turkish Government could punish both ENAG and the press agency in question, because; ENAG published ‘fake news’ by making a claim against an institution seconded by the Turkish Government. The press agency, on the other hand, aided its spread by publishing this article. The Government can even go further and claim that the press agency has caused panic and fear among the people and damaged the country’s integrity as it has influence over people. In these circumstances, the government is empowered by the new law to request removal of published articles within 2 weeks, and if the article is not taken down in this period of time, access can be limited to their website from Türkiye by up to 90%. Also, all advertisement rights can be revoked, and their press card can be canceled as a final punishment.
Considering the vague wording of the new laws, the private persons that shared this article on their social media profiles can be jailed for a period between 1 to 3 years, because they will be in the position of aiding the spread of this false information. If they have done this through a profile that does not have any information about their identity, the punishment can be increased by half of the sentence.The social media platform on which they shared this news article will also be culpable, as the Government can request the platform take down these posts and provide the details of persons whom shared them. If the platform rejects the claim or does not provide all the information requested from them, they will be punished like the press agency, and depending on their size, even more.
The examples above are not far from reality as this has happened several times in the past. The most recent one involves 4 journalists and 34 others, a total of 38 people, who were prosecuted because of an analysis made in Bloomberg News with the headline “Economic Crisis and Foreign Currency” where it was claimed that the Turkish Lira would lose value . Despite 4 years of trial, the case resulted in April 2022 with the acquittal of all 38 ; however, the new laws question whether the case would result in the same if it were reviewed now.
It is worth mentioning that the Turkish Government tries to justify these new laws by expressing that they benefited from the Western laws on social networks during their preparation , but they did not compare the overall legal landscape. The countries they gave as an example ensure a fair judicial system is in place, secures the personal rights of those prosecuted, and respect the rule of law in every stage of the process. If any of them enacted a law like this, it would still raise some concerns, but it would not impact the people as it does in Türkiye, and the people of those countries would not fear for their rights as they can trust their legal system. This cannot be said for Türkiye. Amnesty International has reported in Turkey 2021 Country Report that there were deep flaws in the judicial system which were not addressed by the Government, and those who oppose the Government (politicians, journalists, human rights defenders, and others) have faced baseless investigations, prosecutions, and convictions . It is evident that these target groups and anyone that is against the Government’s actions are now in even more danger.
This bill and the related framework has largely flown under the radar in the West, but with the potential dangers for freedom of expression within Türkiye and beyond its borders calls for rigorous investigation.
The article is edited by Mari-Liis Vähi, Estonian Human Rights Centre’s Digital Rights and Data Protection Lawyer.
- The Law Regarding the Regulation of Broadcasts on the Internet and Fighting Against Crimes Committed Through These Broadcasts, Law No. 7253, 31 July 2020
- The Law Amending Press Law and Other Matters, Law No. 7418, 18 October 2022
- Ludovic De Foucaud, “Inflation in Turkey: Researcher won’t hide the figures Erdogan doesn’t want to see” France24 [22 May 2022] <https://www.france24.com/en/asia-pacific/20220622-inflation-in-turkey-researcher-won-t-hide-the-figures-erdogan-doesn-t-want-to-see> accessed 24 October 2022
- Bloomberg News “BDDK 38 kişi hakkında suç duyurusunda bulundu” [14 June 2019] <https://www.https://www.bloomberght.com/bddk-38-kisi-hakkinda-suc-duyurusunda-bulundu-2225032> accessed 24 October 2022 (in Turkish Language)
- BIA News Desk “Thirty-eight people acquitted after four years of trial for commenting on economic crisis” Bianet English [29 April 2022] <https://bianet.org/5/110/261225-thirty-eight-people-acquitted-after-four-years-of-trial-for-commenting-on-economic-crisis> accessed 24 October 2022 (in Turkish Language)
- Banu Güven “Dezenformasyon bahane, seçime doğru sansür şahane” DW Türkiye [9 October 2022] <https://www.dw.com/tr/dezenformasyon-bahane-se%C3%A7ime-do%C4%9Fru-sans%C3%BCr-%C5%9Fahane/a-63385515> accessed 24 October 2022 (in Turkish Language)
- Amnesty International Report “Turkey 2021”  <https://www.amnesty.org/en/location/europe-and-central-asia/turkey/report-turkey/>
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