On the day when the contentious draft bill that stipulates amendments in the numerous laws such as press law, internet law and criminal code which was dubbed as “Censorship Law” by the opposition and “Disinformation Law” by the ruling block, voted at the parliament on October 13, a banner was circulating in the social media. It was a logo with a hand just like the one in the famous American “I want you” poster of Uncle Sam. The banner read, “This is fake news, share the truth.” It was an ad for the “disinformation bulletin” issued by the Presidential Directorate of Communications that will list the “fake news” weekly.
Turkey’s government has just established its “Ministry of Truth” similar to one in the 1949 dystopic novel “1984” by George Orwell with the new bill. It is no coincidence that “1984” is one of the best sellers in Turkey, as people find a reflection of their experiences in a dystopia. From now on, any statement that contradicts the official one will be a crime punishable with 1 to 3 years of imprisonment. Anything that authorities state will be deemed “truth”.
Disinformation, misinformation, censorship
The draft bill, that is just enacted with the votes of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) on October 13, was promoted as a “disinformation law” that aims to “fight against disinformation and infollution”. As a matter of fact, some of its provisions are put in the document to ensure compatibility with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which is itself a grand discussion.
However, from the moment that the 40-article bill came to the public attention it was harshly criticized by all professional journalist associations and opposition parties which argued that this bill intends to grant massive censorship authority to the presidential office and judiciary by defining an arbitrary crime of “deliberately disseminating misleading information”. In addition, it includes provisions concerning online media as well as service providers such as Twitter or YouTube. These provisions will result in the ruling block tightening its grip even further on online media, social media and information flow in general.
The Venice Commission notes in Urgent Joint Opinion published on Oct. 7 that “the draft provision constitutes an interference with the freedom of expression,” adding that the law is not written with “clearly defined terms,” adding that terms are “not sufficiently clear”.
The vague definition of a crime
The most contentious article of the bill is Article 29 which stipulates a new crime in the penal code: “publicly disseminating misleading information.”
“A person who publicly disseminates false information about the internal and external security, public order and general health of the country, in a way that is disturbing the public peace, with the sole motive of creating anxiety, fear or panic among the people, is sentenced to imprisonment from one year to three years,” the article reads.
The problem is not just the fact that journalistic activities will be subjected to a criminal investigation, the law includes social media activities to act of disseminating false information, making every social media user a potential criminal.
However, from the legal perspective, the law is ambiguously worded, hence it is open to interpretation. That creates room for judges and prosecutors, whose independence in Turkey is already being questioned amid the criticisms of being under political influence. IT Law expert and one of the founders of the Freedom of Expression Association Yaman Akdeniz told YetkinReport on June 14 that this definition “adds a new crime to the long list of crimes in the hands of prosecutors,” that might lead to arbitrary investigations, and “dissidents using social media will be affected primarily”.
Online access bans made easy
That brings us to the burning issue of blocking access to sites and content which has been under discussion in Turkey for a while because of its wide implementation. “The Law on Regulation of Broadcasts on the Internet” was enacted in 2007. It regulates the removal of content from websites or blocking access to websites that serve unlawful content by banning the resolution of domain names on DNS servers that Turkish service providers operate.
Article 8 of the law enumerates crime-bearing traits of content to be regarded as unlawful and be subjected to an access ban, such as inciting suicide, sexual abuse of children or terror charges. It allows the courts and Information Technologies Authority to issue an order to block access or remove content only if these traits were present.
With the new law, ordering such bans will be easier, because the disinformation crime will be an add-on trait to this list. As it is vaguely defined, it will create an escape route for the prosecutors.
Twitter and Youtube to make a difficult decision
Social media platforms such as Twitter and Youtube already made a difficult decision in 2020 when another amendment in the law imposed a mandatory requirement for these platforms to have a representative in Turkey or face a reduction of the bandwidth of the traffic leading up to these sites up to 98 percent, if they do not comply with the requirements that the law dictates.
Identifying anonymous accounts on social media was one of the biggest challenges for the authorities. With the new law, social media platforms will be obliged to “remove content, to share the information of content creators and report algorithms that promote unlawful content with the authorized law enforcement,” otherwise face administrative sanctions.
With the new law, social media platforms and corporations will be under further administrative scrutiny to operate in Turkey. This may lead the platforms such as Twitter and Youtube to “re-evaluate” their decisions to continue their operations in the country.
Messaging platforms under scrutiny
Messaging applications such as Whatsapp and Signal will also be within the scope of the regulation that obliges them to report information such as the number of active individuals and corporate users in Turkey, the number and duration of voice calls, the number and duration of video calls and a number of instant messages sent.
It means that if somebody tweets the recent inflation rate, that is not in compliance with the official numbers, authorities will issue an order and within 4 hours, that content has to be removed, otherwise, the platform will face administrative sanctions.
Ahead of 2023 elections, that is a powerful tool to take control of the information flow, a sweeping authority to interfere with social media, online media and even search engines if unwanted content started to be circulated.