Turkey’s new disinformation law punishes online dissent | Media Pyro


Last month, Turkish lawmakers passed a law that deals a devastating blow to people expressing their opinions both online and offline. The Anti-Disinformation Act allows authorities to clamp down on so-called “fake news”, legalizes censorship of online content and silences dissent out of a perceived concern for countering disinformation.

All over the world and under different types of regimes, Internet freedom is under attack. Although Russia, China, and other authoritarian countries are often singled out, democratic countries are also cracking down without proper oversight. Like many authoritarian counterparts, the Turkish government equates legitimate political speech with disinformation.

Freedom House Freedom in the network 2022 The report details a decade-long decline in Internet freedom in Turkey. Journalists and members of the political opposition are routinely jailed for their online content, and hundreds of people have been charged with defamation for their social media posts critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In March 2022, a court found the content of the independent online publication Özgür Gelecek “undesirable” and the authorities blocked it for 33rd time. While websites are often blocked around the world, an independent news site rarely gets blocked again and again.

This new disinformation law is in line with this tactic: Erdogan announced plans for the law after social media users criticized the government’s handling of the 2021 wildfires. According to official statistics, 172 people were prosecuted for their critical comments, and some media were fined heavily for their coverage.

This law and the highly politicized nature of Turkey’s judicial system allow authorities to restrict independent journalism and imprison critics of the government. The risk of its abuse is high as Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) prepare for a 2023 general election.

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Article 29 of the law on disinformation provides for punishment in the form of imprisonment for a term of up to three years for persons found guilty of spreading information that the authorities consider to be false. These sentences can be increased by 50% if the court determines that the person spread the disinformation with an undercover person or as part of an illegal organization. Without online anonymity, outspoken activists, journalists and ordinary users will be subject to self-censorship, and the work of local human rights groups, already constrained by discriminatory laws, will be at risk.

The October 2022 law increased bandwidth throttling fines and penalties for non-compliance with the country’s social media law, which requires social media companies to appoint local representatives to handle censorship requests and monitor government orders. Technology companies, including messaging and voice-over-the-internet platforms, must set up formal entities in Turkey, which would hamper their ability to resist government censorship demands. Vague wording on government access to tech companies’ personal data threatens privacy.

The new law establishes a committee to deal with press accreditation and advertising funds for digital media. Given the history of financial support for the government by state media, this requirement could further limit the diversity of online content in Turkey, strengthening pro-government media and financially blocking independent media.

As this new disinformation law and other regulations force tech companies in Turkey to either comply with censorship and surveillance or face severe penalties, these platforms must back off. They should challenge abuses of power in court by consulting or working with local or regional civil society groups. Although Twitter has often complied with censorship orders, in late 2021 it won a case in a Turkish court that challenge illegitimate government request to remove content.

Democratic governments must condemn this new Turkish law. This threatens the privacy and data of all Internet users in Turkey, regardless of nationality. The personal data of foreign citizens may be subject to abuse by the Turkish government. The provisions of the data localization law conflict with privacy protections enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, which Turkey is a signatory to. The European Court of Human Rights must review the law and its impact on people’s rights in Turkey.

Civil society groups are working hard to protect human rights online in Turkey. But the authorities will continue their campaign to control public speech and discourse, online and offline, for as long as possible. More than ever, those who fight for freedom of speech around the world must do everything they can to fight for a free and open internet in Turkey.

Gürkan Özturan is the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFR) coordinator at the European Center for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) and the author of the Turkey report Freedom on the Net 2022. Kathryn Grote is a research analyst at Freedom House covering the Middle East and North Africa for freedom on the web 2022.

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