Turkey Allows Jail Terms for What It Deems ‘Fake News’

ISTANBUL — Turkey’s Parliament has passed sweeping new legislation intended to stamp out disinformation, allowing the government to jail journalists and social media users for up to three years for spreading information deemed to be false or misleading.

The final piece of the legislation, which also requires social media companies to hand over the personal details of users suspected of spreading “fake news,” was approved on Thursday night with votes from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s governing party and its allies, who control a parliamentary majority.

Mr. Erdogan, who has concentrated more power in his hands in recent years while growing less tolerant of dissent, had argued it was necessary to fight disinformation and called social media a threat to democracy.

But a range of critics — including opposition lawmakers, media freedom advocates and legal scholars — have criticized the law itself as a threat to democracy, saying that its vague provisions could have a chilling effect on free expression and enable the government to prosecute critics or journalists who publish information about wrongdoing or corruption.

Those worries are particularly acute in the run-up to presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June, in which Mr. Erdogan and his party will seek to stay in power, despite galloping inflation that has seen their popularity sag in the polls.

The disinformation legislation is the most recent step in what rights watchdogs have called a constriction of free expression in Turkey under Mr. Erdogan, who has been the country’s premier politician since 2003 and president since 2014.

In recent years, the websites of foreign news outlets, including the Voice of America and Germany’s DW, have been blocked, Turkish TV stations and newspapers have fallen increasingly under the control of the state, and citizens have been arrested on charges for such crimes as “insulting the president.”

But social media and online news sites enjoyed a greater degree of free expression, which the new law threatens to undermine.

To drive that point home, Burak Erbay, an opposition lawmaker, spoke from the Parliament’s podium to the millions of young Turks who will be eligible to vote for the first time next year.

“You have only one freedom left: the phone in your pocket,” Mr. Erbay said. “If the law here passes in Parliament, you can break your phone like this.”

Then he smashed a cellphone with a hammer.

Mahir Unal, a senior lawmaker from Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, defended the legislation in Parliament, saying it did not target free expression or criticism that “does not exceed the limits.”

During a TV interview in May, after his party proposed the law, he said, “We are working on this so that freedom of expression, criticism and freedom of the press will not be limited.”

To come into force, the new legislation must be signed by Mr. Erdogan within 15 days. He can also send it back to Parliament for revision.

Turkey was under fire for limiting freedom of expression even before the new legislation. Freedom House, a democracy promotion group, rates Turkey “Not Free” on its Freedom in the World index. Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 149 out of 180 countries in its press freedom index.

The Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s legal advisory body, acknowledged in a legal assessment of the legislation the threat that disinformation poses to democratic societies. But at the same time, it called on Turkey not to enact the law, saying it had “serious doubts” about the need to criminalize disinformation in such a way.

It also said the legislation could lead to self-censorship, especially during elections.

The legislation is not a new law, but it consists of 40 amendments to existing laws.

Of greatest concern to rights advocates is Article 29. It allows for prison terms of one to three years for anyone who “disseminates false information about the country’s domestic and foreign security, public order and general health, with the sole aim of creating anxiety, fear or panic among the public and in a manner that is liable to disturb public peace.”

Supporters of the legislation have compared it with similar laws in European countries and say it includes enough safeguards to prevent it from being used to punish peaceful, legitimate speech. But legal scholars say it gives the authorities great flexibility in how to apply it.

“It is very vague and arbitrary, it will be used in an arbitrary and discriminatory way in Turkey,” said Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Istanbul Bilgi University. “It lacks adequate legal safeguards and provides wide discretion to the prosecutors and courts.”

The law also significantly tightens regulations governing the operations of large social media companies in Turkey.

If requested by the Turkish authorities, companies like Meta, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube must remove content and provide proprietary information, including user data of suspected perpetrators and algorithmic information used to determine rankings.

Companies that fail to comply could face drastic slowdowns in the speed of their services in Turkey, a practice known as throttling, or fines equal to 3 percent of their global income.

Mr. Akdeniz said these companies must decide whether they are going to respect the new requirements to continue to operate in Turkey, at the risk of enabling government crackdowns.

“If you comply with this,” he said, “you risk becoming the long arm of the Turkish authorities.”

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