On 27 May lawmakers from Turkey’s ruling coalition submitted a draft bill seeking to criminalise the spread of disinformation. The 40 articles of the “disinformation law” would place new restrictions on online news sites and social media platforms operating in the country. This represents an alarming move to tighten the regulation of cyberspace. The proposal includes prison sentences of up to three years for disseminating misleading information about “the internal and external security of the country, public order and public health”. Prison sentences can be increased by half if content is shared from an anonymous account.
The disinformation bill must be seen in the context of Turkey’s sharp authoritarian turn. Faced with an energised opposition, Erdoğan has already politicised the judiciary to target his opponents and amended the electoral law to disadvantage the opposition parties. The proposed legislation aims to bring online news sites and social media platforms under government control in the lead up to the 2023 elections. Although the parliamentary vote has been postponed until the next legislative session after disagreements within the ruling party, the threat to free speech remains.
The draft bill easily passed the digital media committee of the Turkish parliament but was postponed at the last minute until the new session in October 2022. If enacted, the bill will clamp down on one of the country’s last remaining venues of free speech. Turkey has already experienced a sharp decline in media freedoms under President Erdoğan. More than 90 percent of Turkey’s media outlets are directly or indirectly controlled by the ruling Justice and Development Party. As a result, Erdoğan enjoys regular and highly positive coverage. The few remaining independent operators have limited funding and face frequent legal challenges. About 100 journalists are currently in prison in Turkey, largely due to the partisan use of anti-terror laws. According to the International Press Institute, 241 journalists were prosecuted in 2021 alone. Journalists are frequently assaulted by police during demonstrations, verbally attacked by politicians and targeted by pro-government vigilantes.
After the government’s crackdown on legacy media, social media emerged as an alternative where Turkish citizens continued to enjoy access to alternative sources of information. However, the digital realm was not been completely free of government control. Under the AKP, the Information and Communication Technologies Authority blocked access to more than 400,000 websites, including a temporary ban on Wikipedia in 2017. For years Turkey has topped the list of requests for content to be removed from Twitter and Facebook, and access to tens of thousands of YouTube videos has been blocked. In July 2020, the parliament passed an amendment to the internet law obliging social media platforms with more than one million users to nominate legal representatives and store their user data in Turkey. These measures were aimed at making platforms like Twitter and Facebook more responsive to government requests to take down online material.
The disinformation bill will allow the government to tighten its control over the digital realm by channelling more resources to pro-government online media and expanding censorship. Its wording is vague enough to give prosecutors broad discretion to criminalise almost any criticism of the public authorities. The new law can be used to narrow public debate on politically sensitive issues such as migration and the economic crisis. It also makes it easier for the authorities to remove content from social media platforms and to prosecute individuals for their views. This will create fear among citizens and lead to self-censorship. It also allows the government to abuse state accreditation and advertising to reward compliant online news outlets.
The disinformation bill has encountered strong resistance from opposition parties, journalists and civil society organisations, all of whom are worried that it will intensify the repression of critics of the government. The postponement of the parliamentary vote suggests that that even the AKP elites have been unable to reach a consensus on the bill’s details. This decision gives opposition groups additional time to exploit the fractures within the ruling bloc and mobilise public opinion.
European policymakers need to remain vigilant towards the Turkish president’s efforts to stifle dissent. Turkey has experienced a sharp decline in media freedoms during Erdoğan’s presidency and is now ranked 149th out of 180 countries in the Reporters without Borders 2022 World Press Freedom Index. This is a dismal record for a country that is still a European Union accession candidate (even if the process has long been put on hold). If enacted, the disinformation law will make it easier for the government to target its critics in the digital world and weaken the ability of opposition groups to challenge the government’s agenda. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Erdoğan seems to have regained a degree of popularity in Western capitals. The EU already cooperates with Turkey on key security and energy matters as well as the migration crisis. That cooperation should not come at the cost of turning a blind eye to serious attacks on free speech.
For nearly five years, Osman Kavala sat in prison without a sentence. Now the philanthropist has been sentenced to life imprisonment for attempting to overthrow the government. The trial has shown that rule-of-law principles do not count in Turkey. This poses a dilemma for the EU, says Berk Esen.