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Opposition protests lead to delay of MPs’ debate on controversial article of ‘disinformation’ bill

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Parliamentary debate on the controversial Article 29 of Turkey’s government-backed “disinformation” bill, which criminalizes the dissemination of “false or misleading information” and stipulates prison sentences, was postponed due to a protest by opposition lawmakers, local media reported on Thursday.

On Oct. 4 Turkish lawmakers began debating a government-backed bill that could intensify a years-long crackdown on critical reporting in Turkey. 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.

The MPs were to debate Article 29 of the draft law on Wednesday, which would amend the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) by adding a provision (Article 217/A) that would subject persons found guilty of publicly disseminating “false or misleading information” to between one and three years in prison and would increase by half the penalty for offenders who hide their identity or act on behalf of an organization.

According to Turkish media reports, lawmakers from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) began clapping their hands and shouting slogans during a general assembly session on Wednesday in protest of the debate on the controversial article, with MPs from other opposition parties joining them shortly afterward.

Seeing that the protests were continuing although he had halted the proceedings twice, Deputy Parliament Speaker Haydar Akar ended the session and postponed the debate to 2 p.m. on Thursday.

The development sparked rows between opposition lawmakers and others from the ruling AKP and its ally, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), local media reports said.

“It’s 3:00 a.m. With our rightful resistance, the session was closed without Article 29 being debated. We do not accept arbitrary practices against … journalism [and] freedom of expression. … Our protest will continue tomorrow from where we left off,” CHP MP Sevda Erdan Kılıç said in a tweet.

Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, an HDP lawmaker and a prominent defender of human rights, also announced the development on Twitter, saying it’s “good news” for everybody.

Meanwhile, CHP MP Burak Erbay, who took the floor during debates on the “disinformation” bill, on Wednesday smashed his mobile phone with a hammer in protest, telling Turkish youth they can also break their phones since they won’t need to use them if the bill is passed by parliament.

Addressing young people in Turkey, Erbay said, “You have only one freedom [in Turkey], and that is the phone in your pocket. There is Instagram … Facebook … Youtube. You communicate there. If the law here passes kin parliament, you can break your phones like this … [since] you won’t need to use them.”

The Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters, last week said in an urgent opinion focusing on Article 29 of the draft law that such an amendment would amount to an interference with freedom of expression. Also pointing to the potential detrimental impact of the article, namely, the chilling effect and increased self-censorship, the commission recommended that Turkish authorities not enact the draft amendment of Article 217/A to the TCK.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)’s Monitoring Committee also made a similar recommendation earlier this week, expressing concern that the article could cause “irreparable harm” to the exercise of free speech prior to the 2023 elections in Turkey.

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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