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 glimmer of hope in the West for the overwhelmingly Muslim country. However, the experience of Turkey over the past 20 years is one descending into an authoritarian regime with clampdowns on free speech, curbs on dissent and increases in political persecutions. The freedom of the press in the country is systematically trampled with draconian laws and punitive measures, giving vague interpretations of national security and terrorism. As the internet is becoming pervasive among Turkish citizens, the state is also extending its control to the internet, muffling the criticism and debate against the government online.
At the end of May 2022, the Turkish government put the “disinformation law” before parliament, amending the press and various other laws. The bill provides prison terms of up to three years for spreading “disinformation” and “fake news” on digital platforms. Multiple journalists and free speech organizations have criticized the bill as the most significant censorship in Turkish history, meant to further undermine the free speech rights of citizens in the lead-up to the 2023 general elections.
This article will analyze how civil society and the public in Turkey are muted through censorship, surveillance and intimidation over the internet. Further, the authors will try to explain the concerns and the impact of the new disinformation bill in Turkey, which will be voted on before parliament in October 2022.
Tracing the Digital Authoritarianism in Turkey
Early traces of the State’s attempt to control digital media in Turkey can be traced to 2006, when the anti-terrorism law was amended to enable the government to use personal data for investigation when the suspects were alleged of terrorism or sympathy to terrorism. Several journalists, critiques and civil rights activities were sent to trial based on evidence collected through digital surveillance. In 2007, parliament adopted its first internet bill, known as Law no.5651.The law was meant to protect users from illegal and harmful online content by establishing the responsibility of content providers and hosting companies. The law enabled public prosecutors to impose a ban on any online website within 24 hours by a court or administrative order. It soon became an instrument of misuse in the hand of the government to block access to various websites, with over 1,300 website blockages by 2008.
The Gezi Square Protest of 2013 marked a catalytic event in digital censorship in Turkey. The government amended the infamous internet bill, allowing it to block websites because of a breach of 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. The perennial internet shutdowns mainly targeted the southeast regions, where the Kurd resistance is firmly grounded. The surveillance measures also emerged with the passing of the Law on the Intelligence Service and the National Intelligence Agency, allowing the National Intelligence Agency of Turkey to use any technical or human intelligence related to national and counterterrorism. In the aftermath of the Gezi Protests, Turkey also became a client of various digital surveillance technology like Pegasus, Candiru Spyware and network injections.
In 2016, Turkey went through its fourth military coup with a failed 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 men were sacked. During the emergency enforcement after the coup, the state was able to intercept the digital communication of the individuals alleged to be involved in the coup. In 2018, the change in the constitutional structure from parliamentary to presidential further entrenched the power of the government to muzzle dissent in the digital world. In 2019, the government granted plenary powers to Turkey’s 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 the authorities, establish local offices and remove digital content within two days of government order.
The crackdown on digital freedom has led to the downgrading of Turkey in various civil and human rights rankings. Turkey was classified as “not free” on the 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 comprises around 40 articles. It was introduced in parliament at the end of May. Parliament will vote on the bill in the next session of the legislative assembly, and it will bring severe ramifications to Turkey’s free digital media landscape. It proposes similar regulations for traditional print, broadcast media and online media platforms. This will engender digital media platforms to apply to the government for press cards to cover current events.
The legislation also includes a prison term between one to three years for publicly disseminating misleading information. However, what constitutes misleading information, or who would decide the definition, is not mentioned in the bill, giving ample scope for misuse to the highly politicized judiciary. The vague definition of “disinformation” and “intent” will put millions of Turkish users in peril for posting information critical of the government.
The bill also aims to enhance the prison term by 50 percent when the information is published from an anonymous account. This provision erodes the anonymity of internet users and further threatens those who want to post evidence of government malpractice. Anonymity allows citizens to speak openly and honestly without any distraction or fear of retribution; thus, this provision will impede citizens’ free speech. The bill will narrow the scope of public debate, discussion and scrutiny on any new policy or national issue. It will eventually create self-censorship among citizens.
Another disconcerting provision brings digital news sites under Press Law. It implies that online news portals will get official press accreditation and public advertising funds through the Official Press Advertising Agency. This will effectively allow pro-government news agencies while asphyxiating critical media funds on the ground of breaching the disinformation law. The vague terminology and harsh punishments the law give unfettered power to the government to further curtail online criticism, especially from younger populations.
Various policymakers, media persons and lawyers fear that if the bill goes into effect, it will breach public peace and put the fundamental rights of the citizens in a dire state. The law should not go into effect since it will violate the basic human right of freedom of speech and expression protected under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The governing alliance has claimed that the bill is in accordance 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 combat false information 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 uninvited.
Article 28 of the constitution of Turkey explicitly states that the press is free and will not be curtailed. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human rights and Fundamental Freedom, ratified by Turkey in 1954, safeguards expressions of nonviolent opinion. However, as explained above, the government has used a slew of measures, from anti-terrorism laws to censorship measures and surveillance technologies, to undermine freedom of expression in the digital sphere.
The new disinformation law will further strain independent media outlets 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 already shrinking free digital space. Input from key stakeholders who will be affected by the bill is essential to ensure that it will not adversely affect online media entities.
Jeetendra Vishwakarma and Nishka Kapoor are second-year law students at 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 nexus with the issue of human rights.
Suggested citation:Jeetendra Vishwakarma and Nishka Kapoor, Turkey’s New Disinformation Bill: Disturbing 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, JURIST Commentary Co-Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org