A new law in Turkey that would jail people for spreading “fake news” online has widened the rift with European digital regulations and human rights standards to tighten the muzzle on the press and social media users ahead of elections next year.
Turkey’s parliament passed the so-called “disinformation law” on Oct. 13 as the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its governing partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) ignoring public protests and objections by rights defenders, opposition parties and European officials. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signed the law into force on Oct. 18.
Turkey has long faced criticism for its crackdown on the press, relying on anti-terrorism, libel and other laws to restrict speech. It has one of the world’s highest incarceration rates for journalists and broad governmental control of mainstream media, with nine out of 10 TV channels and newspapers either run by the state or companies close to Erdoğan.
That has made the online sphere a vital outlet in Turkey, where four out of five people use platforms like Twitter and Facebook to find news and commentary that deviate from the official narrative. But in recent years, the government has trained its sights here, banning access to Germany’s Deutsche Welle online Turkish news edition and passing internet legislation last year to exert more influence over the platforms.
Now, the target is social media users themselves, said Sarphan Uzunoğlu, the director of NewsLabTurkey. “I would call this the self-censorship law. In Turkey, we already have regulations and rules for institutions, including large media [companies] that subject them to serious control,” he said. “The main interlocutor this time is the citizen himself. When you’re on Twitter, you may think twice after writing 60, 70 characters and decide it’s better to delete it.
“The aim is to now control what a person shares online, when it might be something he would say out loud at any coffee shop across the country,” Uzunoğlu said.
Formally known as Law on Amending the Press Law, the regulation carries prison sentences of up to three years for spreading “disinformation” online that is deemed a threat to Turkey’s security or public health, and increases the sentence by 50 percent if the content is published by anonymous accounts.
It requires online platforms to share details of users and appoint local representatives to remove content and allows for Facebook and Twitter to be blocked. Already, Turkey regularly tops Twitter’s list of countries’ filing content removal requests.
The new law also expands the authorities of the state Press Advertising Agency’s to online news sites, especially local news providers that rely heavily on state advertising and receive accreditation from the government. “If an outlet is going to be a part of the state’s support network, it has to be a part of its truth regime too,” said Uzunoğlu.
The law passed just eight months before Erdoğan and the AKP face elections with historically low approval ratings. Critics say the new rules could hinder campaigns by opposition parties and limit discussion of the government’s policies by civil society organisations, especially its handling of the economy amid a cost-of-living crisis and double-digit unemployment.
Analysts worry that independent research from economists that differs from official statistics, such as data that shows inflation is climbing at more than twice the rate than what the government says, could be blocked and those who share unofficial figures could be penalised.
Erdoğan has repeatedly defended the policing of online speech as an existential necessity. “Media and communication issues, combating social media and disinformation are of vital importance in terms of ensuring our political and social survival,” he said earlier this year.
Other Turkish officials have argued the legislation is in line with European laws. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu singled out Germany and France for purportedly having even stricter rules in place than Turkey.
While a French law passed in 2018 specifically targets disinformation and includes up to a year in prison for violators, Germany’s so-called Facebook Law is broader, combatting fake news and hate speech too, and requires social media platforms to remove content, rather than imposing criminal penalties on individual users.
Unlike the Turkish law, European Union regulations are not specifically aimed at disinformation, taking a more holistic approach to countering a range of online harms. The bloc’s main regulatory framework, the Digital Services Act which was updated this year, introduces obligations for platforms, including respect for fundamental rights, and provisions for transparent advertising and illegal content, such as terrorist activity or copyright violations, in addition to rules on misinformation.
Even more profoundly, the Turkish law could infringe upon the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. Article 8 explicitly states: “Everyone has the right to the protection of personal data concerning him or her.” European citizens traveling or residing in Turkey could be caught up because of the data localisation provisions that require data be collected and stored inside Turkey.
Turkey’s track record offers little assurance that prosecution of the latest law won’t be politicised. The government has blocked nearly a half-million websites that criticise its policies or politicians and has launched thousands of court cases against users for posting criticism of Erdoğan. Self-censorship is also widespread due to the fear of online surveillance and criminal consequences. Prosecutors regularly equate political speech with disinformation.
All of this has conspired to “make the online space less diverse,” said Cathryn Grothe, a Freedom House research analyst covering the Middle East. She contributed to the Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report, released last month and which ranks Turkey 32nd from the bottom of 100 countries, part of its “steady decline over the last decade,” she said.
“Because of the heavily politicised nature of the judicial system in Turkey, I don't think it's outlandish to assume that this law can be used to further restrict independent journalism or jail government critics,” Grothe said. “It is very likely to serve as another way to curb free expression online, allowing authorities to criminalise dissent under the guise they are curtailing fake news.”
The law’s ambiguous language in defining disinformation increases the likelihood it could be used against legitimate speech. Nacho Sánchez Amor, the European Parliament’s rapporteur for Turkey, pointed to the Turkish law’s severe penalties, the impending election and “distinctly vague wording and non-defined concepts such as ‘disinformation’ or ‘public order,’ which leaves the door open for arbitrary prosecutions” as cause for worry.
For the shrinking field of independent journalism in Turkey, the new law makes critical coverage of the government even more challenging – but more essential than ever as Turks finder fewer channels to obtain the truth.
Less than a week after the law went into effect, police detained 11 journalists working for Mezopotamya Agency, a leftwing online news site that focuses on the plight of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, on suspicion of “making news with content that incites the public to hatred and hostility.”
Lawyers for the agency expect any indictment against the journalist to cite the new disinformation law, said Sedat Yılmaz, a senior editor at Mezopotamya. He described the arrests as just the latest campaign against the agency, saying he has “lost count” of the court cases, monetary fines, criminal lawsuits and blocks on access to the website since it was founded in 2017.
“The pressure will only increase on anyone trying to do real journalism before the election, and the disinformation law makes things easier for the authorities, it gives them legal cover,” Yılmaz said, then quipped: “At least the pressure we have already faced means we will be prepared.”