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Opposition, NGOs slam Turkey's draft law on criminalising 'disinformation'

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By The Cube  with AFP
Opposition lawmakers in Turkey hold signs in protest against the new "disinformation" law.
Opposition lawmakers in Turkey hold signs in protest against the new "disinformation" law.   -   Copyright  ADEM ALTAN/AFP or licensors   -  

Journalists' associations and unions have slammed a new draft law in Turkey that would criminalise the spread of "disinformation".

Reporters say the bill is an attempt by the government to censor freedom of expression and restrict independent media.

Under the law, citizens can face between one and three years in prison if they are deemed to have intentionally spread "misleading information".

Social networks will also be forced to remove “false” content under the law and share account details with the authorities.

Platforms must already remove content that's reported as offensive by individuals or the Turkish government.

The new bill was tabled by the AK party of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in May and has already been approved by two parliamentary committees.

The Turkish parliament is due to begin debating the controversial new legislation on Tuesday.

Dozens of journalists gathered outside the parliament building in Ankara, holding placards that read "No to the law of censorship" and "Free press is a condition for democracy".

"If this law is implemented in this form, there will be no freedom of the press, expression, and communication in our country," said Kemal Aktas, chairman of the Turkish parliamentary reporters.

Critics say the wording of the new law is ambiguous and could be used to target government critics.

"The way that it is drafted is so vague and so broad that literally any information critical of the government can be seen as disinformation. We do not see this as a genuine attempt to tackle disinformation, in fact it's tackling any criticism ahead of massively contested elections in 2023," said Suay Boulougouris, a Programme Officer for Article 19, a human rights organisation. 

"The law would become another tool for harassing journalists and activists and may cause blanket self-censorship across the Internet," the NGO said in a statement in May.

According to the draft bill, prosecutors will look for “deliberate” attempts to spread "misleading information" to instigate fear or endanger "security, public order and the general health of the country".

Journalists will be deprived of their press cards if they are convicted under the law.

The bill would also increase any sentence by half if "misleading information" is published by an anonymous user or part of an organisation.

"This ... further intimidates those wanting to publish evidence of corruption and wrongdoing but are afraid of the consequences of being publicly identified," said Article 19.

Opposition parties have tried to block the bill but are likely to fail, given that the AKP holds a majority of 334 seats in the 581-seat Turkish parliament.

In March, Russia passed a similar “fake news” law cracking down on independent news outlets amid the war in Ukraine.

Analysts say Erdoğan is trying to exert more control over Turkey's internet and media before the presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2023.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Turkey currently ranks 149th out of 180 countries for press freedom.

"Disinformation is an important issue and needs to be combatted but not at the price of restricting journalists’ rights and the public’s rights of freedom of expression," said Article 19.

"Any such initiatives should be developed in close consultation with media and other stakeholders and include sufficient safeguards for free speech and independent journalism that can prevent their abuse by the government to impose arbitrary censorship."

"We, therefore, call on all of Turkey’s parliamentarians who believe in the parliamentary process and the free flow of ideas and information as central to a democratic society, to vote down this bill."