Turkey’s parliament has adopted a new law that carries prison terms of up to three years for spreading “disinformation” online.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), voted the law in Thursday, despite objections by opposition parties, European countries and rights advocates.
Ankara said the bill was needed to stem the “serious threat” posed by disinformation and denied it would be used to target opposition voices.
Critics, however, said provisions were worded vaguely and could be used to silence opposition voices.
The U.S. and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe expressed concern about the law.
A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department on Friday told VOA the law “could severely impact” online information and entertainment, and “place restrictions on internet and media freedom.”
“We call on the Turkish government to ensure that approaches to countering disinformation do not inadvertently undermine the principles that undergird democracy — particularly freedom of expression, both online and offline,” the spokesperson said.
Some critics warned that the law could restrict the space for free speech ahead of elections in Turkey next year.
Article 29 of the law, for instance, carries jail terms of up to three years for spreading false information online about national security to “create fear and disturb public order.”
Faruk Eren, head of the press union of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey, flagged what he called the vague wording of the law, saying, “From what we have experienced until now, we think that censorship will be applied with this law.”
Journalists and ordinary citizens could face prison terms or arrests, “if they share something that the government does not like and calls a lie on social media,” he told VOA.
Isin Elicin, who hosts a weekly news show for digital outlet Medyascope, said the government already puts pressure on the media. But now, she said, that pressure “has become legal.”
“It’s actually a form of terrorizing people. So much so that ordinary Twitter users and citizens will be afraid to retweet or even like what is written,” Elicin told VOA. “This is an amendment that prevents speech.”
Turkey has one of the worst records globally for jailing journalists, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which tracks media arrests.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey 149th out of 180 countries, where No. 1 has the best media environment, in its Press Freedom Index. The Paris-based group said “authoritarianism is gaining ground” in Turkey, where “all possible means are used to undermine critics.”
A State Department spokesperson told VOA that vaguely worded laws “have a chilling effect on expression, restrict free and open debate, increase censorship and self-censorship, and endanger the privacy of internet users.”
The spokesperson also said that claims that the U.S. has similar laws were inaccurate.
A lawmaker for the AKP was cited in Turkish media this week as saying American officials told him the U.S. has similar regulations.
“The free flow of information and data is vital,” the spokesperson told VOA, adding that the U.S. urges Turkey to consult with civil society, media organizations and others to ensure the law does not have “unintended consequences.”
‘Worrying step back’
Rapporteurs for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) described the disinformation law as “another worrying step back for freedom of speech and the media.”
John Howell and Boriss Cilevics, the PACE co-rapporteurs monitoring Turkey, said the law was “an unnecessary and disproportionate interference with the freedom of expression,” as highlighted in a recent opinion from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and a PACE resolution.
“It could have a chilling effect and trigger self-censorship, causing irreparable harm ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2023,” they said in a statement shared Friday with VOA.
Turkey’s constitutional court should review the law and consider the views of the Council of Europe and Venice Commission, the rapporteurs said.
The Venice Commission, which advises the rights watchdog Council of Europe, warned the law could have a negative effect.
“Our main concern is the chilling effect that this will have on the political debate in Turkey, as this draft law will apply to everyone,” Herdis Kjerulf Thorgeirsdottir, vice president of the Venice Commission, said earlier this week. “The heavy sanctions of one to three years’ imprisonment of those found guilty of disseminating false or misleading information will lead to widespread self-censorship, which is already struggling in a hostile environment.”
Turkey’s opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) on Friday said it would ask the Constitutional Court to throw out the legislation, which CHP member Burak Erbay described to Reuters as “the biggest censorship law in history.”
Support for journalists urged
Eren, of the press union, told VOA that the law “is not just the problem of journalists.”
“People should protect their right to information. The public should support journalists. This law, perhaps, will create that opportunity to bring journalists and the public together,” he said.
Elicin, of Medyascope, said that the new law made her uneasy but that it would not change her approach to journalism at a crucial time ahead of elections.
“What is wanted is to create fear, to keep information hidden, to pacify people, to intimidate,” she told VOA. But “people need to learn the truth, talk about every subject and, moreover, discuss it.”
The bill now goes to Turkey’s president for final approval.
VOA’s Turkish Service contributed to this report. Some information came from Reuters.