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Turkey’s new ‘disinformation’ law yet another attack on free speech, critics say

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The Turkish parliament on Thursday approved the “disinformation” law, which cements the government’s already-firm grip on social media platforms and news websites while criminalizing the sharing of information, with critics from within and without Turkey describing it as yet another attack on free speech in the country.

The legislation, comprising 40 amendments that each required a separate vote, was proposed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) and comes only eight months before a general election for which Erdoğan is trailing in the polls.

Although it was vehemently opposed by Turkey’s main opposition groups, the bill was approved by parliament with the votes of the ruling AKP and its ally the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Criticism of the bill mainly focuses on Article 29, which amends the Turkish Penal Code 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 a report by the Voice of America Turkish edition on Thursday, Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is expected to apply to the Constitutional Court for the annulment of the controversial law.

“Our struggle against anti-democratic regulations will continue! We will take the law to the Constitutional Court!” CHP lawmaker Utku Çakırözer said in a tweet on Thursday.

Underlining that it was votes of the AKP-MHP alliance that got the law passed, CHP Deputy Chairman Veli Ağbaba said they would be remembered “with shame” by future generations.

Commenting on the controversial law during a program on KRT TV, Ali Babacan, leader of the opposition Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), said it would enable the AKP government to characterize any information that is unhelpful to it as “disinformation” and attack people who spread it since there is no clear definition of what constitutes disinformation in the law.

“We will shout the truth out loud. … The government itself is [spreading fake news] right now. What disinformation are they talking about?” he added.

Fatih Polat, the critical Evrensel newspaper’s editor-in-chief, on Thursday spoke to the Gazete Karınca news website about the bill and emphasized, referring to the AKP and the MHP, that the fact that those who spread disinformation are themselves proposing a regulation under the pretext of combating disinformation shows that they aim to fully control the limited number of media outlets that give voice to opposition figures as the country readies for a critical election.

“Art needs freedom of speech. Literature needs freedom of speech. Democracy needs freedom of speech. The new censorship law in Turkey could jail journalists and writers for years,” prominent Turkish novelist Elif Şafak said in a tweet.

Amnesty International’s Turkey researcher Güney Yıldız said that it was “yet another dark day for online freedom of expression and press freedom in Turkey” since the legislation opens yet new avenues for the authorities to extend their “draconian crackdown” on freedom of expression and increase the “chilling effect” that fear of criminal prosecution brings.

“Coming on the heels of the government’s increased control of the media over the last few years, these new measures enable them to further censor and silence critical voices ahead of Turkey’s upcoming elections and beyond, under the guise of fighting disinformation,” Yıldız said.

Announcing on Twitter that the Turkish parliament passed the “disinformation” law, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) warned that President Erdoğan shouldn’t sign the bill into law “as it will serve as a censorship tool.”

Steven A. Cook, a prominent Turkey expert at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), on Thursday described the bill in a tweet as “nothing but an attempt to further criminalize speech in Turkey,” adding that the law is “so broad” that the few journalists left in the country who aren’t mouthpieces were in “even greater jeopardy” than before the law.

“Another clear attack on journalism in Turkey,” Morgan Till, the senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at PBS NewsHour, also said in a tweet, referring to the passage of the controversial bill.

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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