Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives to address lawmakers in Ankara in November 2020. On May 27, 2022, lawmakers introduced a draft law which would amend the penal code and press and internet laws. (Turkish Presidency via AP Pool)

Turkish legislators introduce disinformation bill, seek more online control

Istanbul, June 1, 2022 – Turkish lawmakers must reject a proposed law aimed at combating disinformation, as it is vague and will serve as an additional tool for prosecuting journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.

On May 27, lawmakers from Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and their ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), introduced the draft law, which would amend the penal code and press and internet laws, according to multiple news reports.

The bill would add an article to the penal code that would sentence those found guilty of publicly spreading misleading information to between one and three years in prison and would increase the penalty for offenders who hide their identity or act on behalf of a criminal group, according to CPJ’s review of the bill. However, the bill did not define what constituted misleading information or say who would make that determination.

The AKP and MHP control the necessary majority in the legislature to pass the bill; however, as of June 1, a date has not been set for a vote. If passed, the bill will be enacted if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signs it within 15 days.

“Turkey has many vague laws already used to prosecute and imprison members of the media. This addition of prosecuting disinformation within the Turkish legal system will only function as a similar tool. Who will decide what is and is not ‘disinformation’? More importantly, how?” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “The Turkish authorities should not adopt the proposed law, should restrain from criminalizing so-called disinformation, and stop seeking more control over the internet.”

The bill also expands restrictions on social media first passed in 2020; that law made it obligatory for social media platforms with over a million users to open local offices and assign local representatives, as CPJ documented.

Under the bill, the representative of these platforms will be required to reside in Turkey, which would allow the Turkish authorities to prosecute them if they so choose. The proposed amendments also bring more detail to the existing obligations of social media companies and make it easier for the Turkish authorities to remove content from the internet.

In a joint statement, local press freedom groups called for the bill’s withdrawal, saying the proposed changes could bring about “one of the heaviest censorship and self-censorship mechanisms” in Turkey’s history.

The bill’s authors wrote in the introduction that it is designed to protect Turkish citizens’ rights online while combating “disinformation” and “illegal content” produced by “false names and accounts” and argued that this action falls in line with regulations in the U.S. and European countries such as Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, according to CPJ’s review.

Of the 40 articles in the bill, 28 of them introduce a new category for journalists working for online outlets in Turkey who are not currently recognized as members of the media by Turkey’s Press Law, according to CPJ’s review. The articles will recognize online outlets as news outlets and allow them to benefit from government advertising funds–which until now have been unavailable to them–and will enable online journalists to obtain a press card, which brings benefits such as early retirement and free or discounted public transportation.

However, CPJ has documented how Erdoğan’s government has used Turkey’s press card system to restrict critical reporting.

CPJ emailed the Turkish president’s office for comment but did not immediately receive a response.