08/21/2021, 08.00
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Erdoğan wants law against 'fake news' to suppress dissent on social media

A new media bill would impose one to five years in prison for spreading online “disinformation” or “misinformation”. Penalties for defamation would also be increased. The bill would set up a directorate to monitor critical content. For experts and activists, this is the sign of a “continued trend of the degradation of internet freedom” in Turkey.

Istanbul (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Turkish government plans to introduce new legislation that would impose one to five years in prison for publishing and spreading fake news on social media. The bill would also set up a regulatory body, the social media directorate, to monitor social media.

Many activists and experts fear that the law, if approved, would enable the authorities to further restrict freedom of thought and speech in the country, repressing and jailing critics of President  Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government.

The bill would criminalise “disinformation" and “misinformation” while defamation would be punished with three months to two years in prison. The new social media directorate would also be responsible for monitoring the content of online opinions and punish criticism.

Last month, President Erdoğan, who heads the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), announced such legislation to counter what he called “the terror of lies”. In reality, the bill is but the latest attempt by the government to suppress online freedom of information, especially by those who are critical – or just not aligned – with Turkey’s rulers.

At present, Turkish media are under tight government control, with the exception of a small number of newspapers and TV stations. 

“At the moment, it (the bill) is quite ambiguous, but I think its mission is to intimidate social media users,” said Erkan Saka, head of media at Istanbul Bilgi University.

Until recently, “people prosecuted for what they write on social media” were “released after a few months,” Saka said. This bill is part of a wider campaign to restrict social media and further crack down on critics.

For Cathryn Grothe, research associate at Freedom House, the bill is part of a “continued trend of the degradation of internet freedom" under Erdoğan.

“It’s another step toward cyber authoritarianism [. . .]  under the current crackdown on free speech and journalists in Turkey. The criminal penalty is really problematic because we know these laws tend to have very vague wording in terms of what is defined as fake news.”

A recent report by the Istanbul-based Freedom of Expression Association found that, last year alone, legal action was taken against 32,000 social media accounts while 58,000 websites were banned.

Over the past year, newspapers and magazines critical of the government lost 88 per cent in advertising revenue.

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