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Criticism mounts as Turkish MPs begin debating controversial ‘disinformation’ bill

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A government-backed bill that could intensify a years-long crackdown on critical reporting in Turkey has sparked criticism from politicians and legal experts as Turkish lawmakers began debating it in parliament this week.

The bill, which was proposed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in May, has already been approved by two parliamentary committees.

It could see offenders jailed for up to three years for spreading “disinformation” and would force social media networks and internet sites to turn over details of users suspected of “propagating misleading information.” As well as risking prison, journalists convicted of breaking the new law could also lose their press cards.

The bill comes as Erdoğan, who has long sought to muzzle criticism, is facing his most challenging election in June 2023 since he came to power nearly two decades ago, with his party’s approval ratings dropping to historic lows thanks to skyrocketing inflation and a currency crisis.

Kerem Altıparmak, a human rights lawyer and former political science professor at Ankara University, on Wednesday warned in a series of tweets that the bill could help the AKP government have social media companies toe the line or shut them down before the 2023 elections.

The lawyer underlined that social network providers could face up to a 90 percent cut in their internet bandwidth or be fined “up to 3 percent of their global turnover” if they don’t carry out decisions made by the head of Turkey’s Telecommunications Authority (BTK) or refuse to respond to a prosecutor’s request for details of users suspected of certain crimes, including spreading “disinformation.”

“As a result, if the law is passed [by parliament], Twitter and other social media companies will either do whatever the government wants, or risk being shut down, or they will be blocked for not doing what the law requires. So the probability of us entering the [2023] elections without [Twitter] is higher than it has ever been,” Altıparmak said.

Meral Akşener, leader of the nationalist İYİ (Good) Party, also slammed the government over the bill during a speech at her party’s group meeting on Wednesday.

Akşener underlined that it wasn’t certain who would detect the “lies” reported by the media, how the truth would be known and which agency would monitor “disinformation.”

“For example, will RTÜK [the Radio and Television Supreme Council], which serves as a sub-unit of the pool media, detect the lies? … For example, will the [presidential] Communications Directorate, the lord of trolls, the prince of slanders, the keeper of perceptions, monitor … disinformation?” the İYİ leader said.

Media outlets that unequivocally support the government are often called “pool media” in Turkey since they are financed by a “pool of government cronies.”

Meanwhile, according to a report by the ANKA news agency on Tuesday, the Turkish parliament approved the first two articles of the bill, with the first allowing press cards to be given to employees working for news websites and the second including news websites among press organizations within the scope of widespread distribution.

The AKP government has been relentless in its crackdown on critical media outlets, particularly after a coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

As an overwhelming majority of the country’s mainstream media has come under government control over the last decade, Turks have taken to social media and smaller online news outlets for critical voices and independent news.

Turks are already heavily policed on social media, and many have been charged with insulting President Erdoğan or his ministers, or criticism related to foreign military incursions and the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Turkey was classified as “not free” by Freedom House in its “Freedom in the World 2022” index.

More than 90 percent of Turkey’s media networks “depend on public tenders and are owned by large businesses with close personal ties to President Erdoğan,” according to a Freedom House report released in February.

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