Misinformation Law In Turkey Echoes Broader Trends In Press And Media Freedom

At the end of May, the Turkish parliament introduced the Press Law, prepared by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is meant to counter misinformation in the Turkish media and journalism sphere. Critics contend that the law is very broad in nature and can be applied arbitrarily. The passing of the law is expected soon and will bring about several changes in the digital and media landscape of Turkey regarding how information is reported and presented.

On May 27, the AKP and MHP presented the Press Law bill draft, which generally aims to “amend the penal code and press and internet laws.” A detailed review by the Committee to Protect Journalists organization (CPJ) lists that the law sentences “those found guilty of publicly spreading misleading information to between one and three years in prison [with a higher] penalty for offenders who hide their identity or act on behalf of a criminal group.” The CPJ adds that there is a lack of clarity on “what constituted misleading information or say who would make that determination.” This law builds on a previous social media law that requires major social media platforms to have local offices and representatives.

The authors of the proposed law explain that it is meant to protect the national population from “disinformation” and “illegal content” produced by “false names and accounts.” It now clearly defines the crime of “spreading misinformation on purpose,” Balkan Insight adds. With the AKP Party holding a significant number of seats in the parliament, the law is expected to pass once President Tayyip Erdogan signs it.

Local press freedom groups are calling for the bill’s withdrawal, stating that the proposed changes could bring about “one of the heaviest censorship and self-censorship mechanisms” in Turkey’s history. Journalists and other media workers have protested in several Turkish cities against the law. According to Al-Monitor, Ozge Yurttas, general secretary of the Turkish Press and Printing Workers’ Union,  “we [journalists and media advocates] believe this law has been drafted to target [media outlets] that do not support the ruling party.” Other NGOs and groups such as the Journalists’ Union of Turkey echo similar sentiments, adding that “there is no article in it to protect journalists or protect the news.”

These types of laws are becoming more frequent in various countries. Other examples include Hungary, Poland, and Russia, where similar laws are presented as a means to combat false information and protect their citizenry. What often happens is that governments that propose and pass the laws use them as a means to exert control over the media landscape, including journalists, media organizations, and other affiliated entities, creating an environment where differing opinions and perspectives from those of the governing powers are less welcome. Laws are also often vague in nature, which gives the governing powers a greater say in determining what is false information and the nature of its consequences.

If passed, the Press Law will add further strain to independent media outlets in Turkey and investigative journalism, making it more difficult to present more objective information about the Turkish government. This will be more harmful in the long run as it takes away the ability to access objective and accurate information that has not been interfered with by authorities. The national government must reconsider its decision and its long-term effects on information accessibility, credibility, and social media. Having input from key stakeholders in the target fields is also important in creating clearer legislation, which must happen with laws of this nature.

One opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), plans to take the matter to the high court. “We will try to intervene [to stop the bill] at parliament. Then, we will take it to the Constitutional Court to annul it,” CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu said in an address to his parliamentary group on June 21. It is important other groups also voice their discontent with the law for a higher chance of being heard by high-level government officials. As more voice their discontent, the national government can either obtain feedback from its people or proceed, risking further discontent over the topic in addition to other areas of Turkish life and society many are already dissatisfied with.