Turkey’s parliament on Thursday approved a tough pre-election law that could see reporters and social media users jailed for up to three years for spreading “fake news,” Agence France-Presse reported.
The new rules cement the government’s already-firm grip on the media eight months before a general election that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan enters trailing in the polls.
The Council of Europe said the measure’s vague definition of “disinformation” and accompanying threat of jail could have a “chilling effect and increased self-censorship, not least in view of the upcoming elections in June 2023.”
The legislation — comprised of 40 amendments that each required a separate vote — was proposed by Erdoğan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) and furiously opposed by Turkey’s main opposition groups.
One lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) smashed his mobile phone with a hammer in parliament to demonstrate how freedom of expression was being destroyed — particularly for the young.
“I would like to address my brothers who are 15, 16, 17 years old and who will be deciding the fate of Turkey in 2023,” CHP lawmaker Burak Erbay said before taking out his hammer.
“You have only one freedom left — the phone in your pocket. There’s Instagram, YouTube, Facebook. You communicate there,” he said ahead of the vote.
“If the law here passes in parliament, you can break your phone like this,” he said.
‘War on the truth’
Most Turkish newspapers and television channels fell under the control of government officials and their business allies during a sweeping crackdown that followed a failed coup in 2016.
But social networks and internet-based media remained largely free of oversight — much to the growing annoyance of Erdoğan.
This began to change when Turkey used the threat of heavy penalties to force giants such as Facebook and Twitter to appoint local representatives who can quickly comply with local court orders to take down contentious posts.
Erdoğan began to argue at around the same time that Turkey’s highly-polarized society was particularly vulnerable to fake and misleading news.
Social media have “turned into one of the main threats to today’s democracy,” Erdoğan said last December.
The new legislation imposes a criminal penalty for those found guilty of spreading false or misleading information.
It requires social networks and internet sites to hand over personal details of users suspected of “propagating misleading information.”
It also allows the courts to sentence accredited reporters and regular social media users who “openly spread misleading information” to between one and three years in jail.
The government has also started publishing a weekly “disinformation bulletin” aimed at debunking what it deems as false news with “accurate and truthful information.”
Lawmakers rejected repeated opposition attempts to dilute the legislation before the vote.
“This law declares war on the truth,” pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) party lawmaker Meral Danış Bektaş said.
Turkey was ranked 149th out of 180 countries in the annual media freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) earlier this year.
“Authoritarianism is gaining ground in Turkey, challenging media pluralism,” RSF said. “All possible means are used to undermine critics.”
Award-winning media rights campaigner Veysel Ok said everyone in Turkey was now exposed to potential prosecution for their views.
“The members of the opposition, NGOs, bar associations, professional associations, journalists and ordinary citizens… Now, all will be subjected to legal harassment,” Ok tweeted.