Turkish lawmakers last month passed legislation delivering a devastating blow to people who express opinions both online and offline. The Law on Combating Disinformation allows authorities to curtail so-called “fake news,” legitimizes censoring online content, and silences dissent out of the ostensible concern to combat disinformation.
Around the world and across different types of regimes, internet freedom is under attack. Although Russia, China, and other authoritarian countries often are singled out, democratic countries have also been cracking down, without sufficient scrutiny. Like many authoritarian counterparts, the Turkish government equates legitimate political speech with disinformation.
Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2022 report details a decade-long decline in internet freedom in Turkey. Journalists and political opposition members are routinely jailed for their online content and hundreds of people have been charged with defamation for their social media posts critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In March 2022, a court deemed independent online news outlet Özgür Gelecek’s content “objectionable” and authorities blocked it for the 33rd time. While websites are often blocked around the world, rarely is an independent news site blocked over and over.
This new disinformation law fits with this tactic: Erdoğan announced plans for the law after social media users criticized the government’s handling of the 2021 wildfires. According to official statistics, 172 people faced criminal charges for their critical comments and some news organizations were heavily fined for their coverage.
This law, and the heavily politicized nature of Turkey’s judicial system, allows authorities to restrict independent journalism and jail government critics. The risk of its misuse is high as Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) prepare for the 2023 general election.
Article 29 of the disinformation law assigns prison sentences of up to three years for those found guilty of sharing what authorities deem false information. These sentences can be increased by 50% if a court rules that a person has spread misinformation with a concealed identity or as part of an illegal organization. Without online anonymity, outspoken activists, journalists, and ordinary users self-censor, and the work of local rights groups, already hamstrung by discriminatory laws, will be jeopardized.
The October 2022 law increased fines and bandwidth-throttling penalties for noncompliance with the country’s Social Media Law, which requires that social media companies designate local representatives to handle government-ordered censorship and surveillance requests. Tech companies, including messaging and Voice-over-Internet platforms, must establish formal entities in Turkey, impeding their ability to push back against government censorship demands. Vague language regarding government access to personal data held by tech companies endangers privacy.
The new law establishes a committee to handle press accreditation and advertising funds for digital media. Considering the authorities’ history of financially favoring state-aligned outlets, this requirement could further limit the diversity of content available online in Turkey, solidifying pro-government media and financially boxing out independent outlets.
While this new disinformation law and other regulations force tech companies in Turkey to either comply with censorship and surveillance or face steep penalties, these platforms should push back. They should challenge government overreach in court, in consultation, or in partnership with local or regional civil society groups. Although Twitter has often complied with censorship orders, it won a case in a Turkish court in late 2021 that challenged an illegitimate government request to remove content.
Democratic governments should condemn this new Turkish law. It threatens the privacy and data of all internet users located in Turkey, regardless of citizenship. The personal data of foreign citizens could be exposed to Turkish government abuse. The law’s data localization provisions contradict privacy protections enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Turkey is a signatory. The European Court of Human Rights should address the law and its effects on the rights of people in Turkey.
Civil society groups have been working hard to protect human rights online in Turkey. But the authorities will continue their campaign to control public speech and discourse, online and offline, for as long as possible. More than ever, those who champion free expression around the world must do what they can to fight for a free and open Internet in Turkey.
Gürkan Özturan is the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFR) Coordinator at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) and the author of the Turkey report for Freedom on the Net 2022. Cathryn Grothe is a Research Analyst at Freedom House, covering the Middle East and North Africa for Freedom on the Net 2022.