Turkey’s New Disinformation Bill: Worrying Trend of Digital Authoritarianism – JURIST – Commentary

Jeetendra Vishwakarma and Nishka Kapoor, second-year law students at the National Academy of Legal Research, Hyderabad, Telangana, discuss the troubling effects of Turkey’s proposed disinformation law on press freedom…

In 2002, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey, defeating Kemalist hegemony, there was a ray of hope in the West for this predominantly Muslim country. However, Turkey’s experience over the past 20 years has been a descent into authoritarian rule with crackdowns on free speech, restrictions on dissent and increased political persecution. Press freedom in the country is systematically violated by draconian laws and punitive measures, giving vague interpretations of national security and terrorism. As the internet becomes ubiquitous among Turkish citizens, the state is also extending its control over the internet, stifling criticism and debate against the government online.

At the end of May 2022, the Turkish government tabled the “Disinformation Law” in parliament, amending the press and various other laws. The bill provides for prison sentences of up to three years for spreading “disinformation” and “fake news” on digital platforms. Several journalists and free speech organizations criticized the bill as the biggest censorship in Turkish history, intended to further undermine citizens’ free speech rights ahead of the 2023 general election. .

This article will analyze how civil society and the public in Turkey are muted by internet censorship, surveillance and intimidation. Additionally, the authors will attempt to explain the concerns and impact of Turkey’s new disinformation bill, which will be voted on in parliament in October 2022.

Tracing digital authoritarianism in Turkey

The first traces of the state’s attempt to control digital media in Turkey date back to 2006, when the anti-terrorism law was amended to allow the government to use personal data for investigative purposes when suspects were suspected of terrorism or sympathy for terrorism. Several journalists, critics and civil rights defenders have been brought to justice based on evidence collected through digital surveillance. In 2007, Parliament passed its first internet bill, known as Law No. 5651. The law aimed to protect users from illegal and harmful online content by establishing the liability of content providers and hosting companies. The law allowed prosecutors to impose a ban on any online website within 24 hours by court or administrative order. It quickly became an instrument of abuse in the hands of the government to block access to various websites, with over 1,300 website blocks in 2008.

The 2013 Gezi Square protest marked a catalytic event in digital censorship in Turkey. The government amended the infamous Internet Bill, allowing it to block websites for violating user privacy without a court order. It also kept a record of Internet traffic for up to two years. The Turkish government’s internet shutdown peaked in 2015 and 2017. Permanent internet shutdowns have mainly targeted the southeastern regions, where Kurdish resistance is firmly entrenched. Surveillance measures also emerged with the passage of the Intelligence Service and National Intelligence Agency Law, allowing Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency to use any technical or human intelligence related to domestic terrorism and to the fight against terrorism. In the aftermath of the Gezi protests, Turkey has also become a client of various digital surveillance technologies such as Pegasus, Candiru Spyware and network injections.

In 2016, Turkey experienced its fourth military coup with an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Erdogan government. In the aftermath of the failed coup, according to Freedom House, more than 100 online and offline media outlets were forced to shut down, thousands of citizens were arrested, and around 150,000 civil servants and military personnel were sacked. During the post-coup emergency enforcement, the state was able to intercept the digital communications of individuals allegedly involved in the coup. In 2018, the change in the constitutional structure from parliamentary to presidential further strengthened the government’s power to stifle dissent in the digital world. In 2019, the government granted plenary powers to the Turkish Radio and Television High Council (RTUK) to regulate OTT platforms like Netflix and forced them to obtain licenses from RTUK. In 2020, the government passed the Social Media Law, requiring social media intermediaries to register with authorities, establish local offices, and remove digital content within two days of the government order.

The crackdown on digital freedom has caused Turkey to be downgraded in various civil and human rights rankings. Turkey was listed as “not free” in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report. Reports without Borders (RSF) ranked Turkey 153/180 as “the most dangerous country for media personnel in Europe”.

The new disinformation law

The disinformation bill was proposed a year ago and includes around 40 articles. It was presented to parliament at the end of May. Parliament will vote on the bill in the next session of the Legislative Assembly, and it will have serious ramifications for the landscape of free digital media in Turkey. It proposes similar regulations for traditional print media, broadcast media and online media platforms. This will spawn digital media platforms asking the government for press cards to cover current events.

The legislation also provides for a prison term of one to three years for public dissemination of misleading information. However, what constitutes misleading information, or who would decide the definition, is not mentioned in the bill, leaving wide scope for misuse to the highly politicized justice system. The vague definition of “disinformation” and “intent” will put millions of Turkish users at risk for posting information critical of the government.

The bill also seeks to increase the prison term by 50% when information is posted from an anonymous account. This provision undermines the anonymity of Internet users and further threatens those who wish to publish evidence of government malpractice. Anonymity allows citizens to express themselves openly and honestly without distraction or fear of reprisal; thus, this provision will hinder citizens’ freedom of expression. The bill will reduce the scope for public debate, discussion and consideration of any new national policy or issue. This will end up creating self-censorship among citizens.

Another disconcerting provision subjects digital news sites to press law. This implies that online news portals will obtain official press accreditation and public advertising funds through the official Press Advertising Agency. This will effectively allow pro-government news organizations to suffocate critical media funds on the grounds of breaking the disinformation law. The law’s vague terminology and harsh penalties give the government absolute power to further restrict online criticism, especially from younger populations.

Various policymakers, journalists and lawyers fear that if the bill goes into effect, it will violate the public peace and put the basic rights of citizens in a sorry state. The law should not come into force because it would violate the fundamental human right to freedom of speech and expression protected by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The ruling alliance claimed the bill complied with the European Union’s Digital Services Act and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). However, the bill is similar to laws in authoritarian countries like Hungary, Poland and Russia, where laws claiming to fight fake news and protect digital users are actually used by the government to exert control over the digital media landscape, creating scenarios where dissenting opinions and perspectives are not solicited.

Conclusion

Article 28 of the Turkish constitution explicitly states that the press is free and will not be restricted. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, ratified by Turkey in 1954, protects the expression of non-violent opinions. However, as explained above, the government has used a range of measures, ranging from anti-terrorism laws to censorship measures and surveillance technologies, to undermine freedom of expression in the digital sphere.

The new disinformation law will put a strain on independent media critical of the government, limiting citizens’ ability to access unfiltered and accurate information. The government must reconsider the bill, taking into account its long-term implications and the already reduced free digital space. Input from key stakeholders who will be affected by the bill is essential to ensure that it does not have a negative impact on online media.

Jeetendra Vishwakarma and Nishka Kapoor are second year law students at the National Academy of Legal Research (NALSAR), Hyderabad, Telangana. They are passionate about contemporary legal and political events at the national and international level and their connection with the issue of human rights.

Suggested quote:Jeetendra Vishwakarma and Nishka Kapoor, Turkey’s New Disinformation Bill: Worrying Trend Toward Digital Authoritarianism, JURIST – Student Commentary, September 17, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/09 /vishwakarma-kapoor-turkey-disinformation-bill/.


This article was prepared for publication by Hayley Behal, co-editor of JURIST commentaries. Please direct any questions or comments to him at [email protected]


The opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of JURIST’s editors, staff, donors, or the University of Pittsburgh.

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