Turkey’s government recently proposed legislation that would criminalize the spreading of misinformation on social media. The move is drawing national and international criticism.
Turkey’s so-called disinformation bill drew condemnation from a European legal watchdog that warned the law would threaten freedom of expression and independent journalism ahead of next year’s elections.
The warning is in a report compiled by the Venice Commission, which advises the Council of Europe. Herdis Kjerulf Thorgeirsdottir, vice president of the Venice Commission, says the law would have far-reaching negative effects.
“Our main concern is the chilling effect that this will have on the political debate in Turkey as this draft law will apply to everyone. Secondly, the heavy sanctions of one to three years’ imprisonment of those found guilty of disseminating false or misleading information will lead to widespread self-censorship, which is already struggling in a hostile environment,” Thorgeirsdottir said.
Rights groups already rank Turkey among the world’s biggest jailers of journalists, a charge Ankara denies.
The Turkish government has in recent years introduced several pieces of legislation aimed at controlling social media. But critics say the latest proposed 40-article law is the most severe.
Yaman Akdeniz of Turkey’s Freedom of Expression Association says social media threatens the government’s control of media in general.
“Social media usage in Turkey is high, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook or other social media platforms,” Akdeniz said. “Turkish people predominantly rely on social media to obtain information because we cannot any longer obtain information from newspapers in Turkey or even TV channels because the majority of these channels and newspapers are controlled by the government.”
The government argues the proposed legislation is similar to social media controls in other European countries.
Thorgeirsdottir says such comparisons are false.
“The inspiration from these countries is not relevant because they do not criminalize false information. Although they may apply to internet service providers or online platforms to remove illegal content, this is not a valid comparison,” Thorgeirsdottir said.
Parliamentary and presidential elections are due in Turkey next year. With the ruling parties and president lagging in the polls, tightening its control on the media is vital for the government, says journalist Hikmet Adai of the Turkish news portal Bianet.
He said elections are coming in June 2023, and with the economic crisis ongoing, the government doesn’t want this bad news to be disseminated, especially for the world to see the scale of the crisis. This proposed law, he says, represents the heaviest censorship in Turkish press history, so it will definitely affect journalism.
The proposed legislation is currently under discussion in parliament and could become law as early as the end of this month.