ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkey’s parliament passed a contentious bill Thursday that amends press and social media laws with the stated aim of combatting fake news and disinformation.
Critics fear that as elections loom, the measure will be used to further crack down on social media and independent reporting.
The 40-article legislation was approved with the votes of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s governing party and its nationalist allies, which together hold a majority in parliament.
The vote came following raucous sessions in parliament, which saw opposition legislators clap and shout to disrupt proceedings, hold up signs denouncing what they called the “censorship law” and one lawmaker smash a smartphone with a hammer.
Amnesty International said after the vote that it was “yet another dark day for online freedom of expression and press freedom in Turkey.”
"These new measures enable (the government) to further censor and silence critical voices ahead of Turkey’s upcoming elections and beyond, under the guise of fighting disinformation” said Amnesty's regional researcher, Guney Yildiz.
The most controversial provision, Article 29, mandates up to three years in prison for spreading information that is “contrary to the truth” about Turkey’s domestic and international security, public order and health for the alleged purpose of causing “public worry, fear and panic.”
Critics warn that social media users could be jailed for posting or reposting information the government deems to be fake news.
“Those who say, ‘There is poverty.,’ will go to jail. Those who say, ‘There is corruption.,’ will go to jail,” said Engin Altay, a senior legislator from the main opposition Republican People’s Party.
Erdogan argued for a law to combat disinformation and fake news, saying false news and rising “digital fascism” are national and global security threats. His Justice and Development Party and nationalist allies say disinformation prevents people from accessing the truth, undermining freedom of expression.
But the wording of the article is so vague that opposition parties say it could be abused by the government and lead to self-censorship in newsrooms. The Republican People's Party has said it will seek the legislation’s annulment by taking it to the Constitutional Court.
“You are bringing the censorship law before the 2023 elections so that you can silence the voice of (the public) and political opposition,” said Saruhan Oluc, a legislator for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party.
Turkey is scheduled to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in June.
Erhan Usta, a legislator from the opposition Good Party, argued that the measures would “push Turkey further down the democracy league.”
Mahir Unal, a senior governing party lawmaker, rejected the opposition's claims, saying the legislation does not target criticism, the expression of opinions or information “that does not exceed the limits.”
On Wednesday, the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe — the continent’s democracy and human rights body — called on Turkey not to enact the legislation. It said plans to criminalize the dissemination of “false or misleading information” would “cause irreparable harm to the exercise of freedom of speech before elections.”
The organization’s constitutional experts, the Venice Commission, raised concerns in an urgent opinion released last week that warned of the measure’s “chilling effect, risk of self-censorship.”
The law also updates several clauses of Turkey’s controversial social media regulations that passed in 2020, which placed requirements on companies like Facebook and Twitter to remove content or face advertisement bans and bandwidth reductions. That law required social media companies to appoint a representative in Turkey to deal with complaints. The new amendment now requires that the representative be a Turkish national who resides in Turkey.
“Either Twitter and other social media companies will have to do what the government wants or risk closure,” lawyer Kerem Altiparmak said on Twitter. “The possibility of going to elections without this platform is higher than ever before.”
Hundreds of thousands of domains and links are already blocked in Turkey.
With the government controlling most news outlets, many in Turkey have turned to social media platforms such as YouTube and Twitter for independent news.
On Wednesday, legislator Burak Erbay, a member of the Republican People’s Party, hammered and smashed a smartphone while addressing parliament, saying the clampdown on social media would make the phones obsolete.
Other changes are the inclusion of digital news sites into the press law that previously covered broadcast and print media, a wider eligibility for press cards beyond journalists that would be approved by Erdogan’s Directorate of Communications, and provisions on advertising.
Turkey was rated “Not Free” for 2021 on the Freedom of the Net index by Freedom House. Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey at 149 out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index.
Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul.