In October, the Turkish parliament passed a new law to combat disinformation. Following years of martial law and emergency rule, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) forced the controversial bill into law with its ultraconservative ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
Dissenters in Turkey’s government interpreted the bill as a gross act of censorship. Members of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) protested the bill during the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in Ankara in the weeks before its passage. One man held up a sign that read: “Don’t Touch Social Media,” while a woman across the conference hall carried one with the words, “Fake News According To Who, According To What?”
Of particular concern was Article 29 of the bill, which criminalizes the general dissemination of “incorrect information,” with penalties ranging from one to three years in prison. Despite the anti-American stance of his party’s strongman populism, AKP Parliamentarian Ahmet Ozdemir cited U.S. law as a model act to rally support for the legislation. The U.S. State Department rejected the comparison.
Consequences for journalists
It is a climate of fear that Kurdish citizens of Turkey know all too well. The Kurds’ nominal presence in Turkey’s parliament is limited to the People's Democratic Party (HDP), which, despite suffering the AKP’s relentless attempts to criminalize the party, strongly influences the six-party coalition vying to nominate a presidential candidate worthy enough to compete with the intractable, 20-year rule of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
When the disinformation law was passed, the deputy of the CHP, Burak Erbay, smashed his phone with a hammer and vowed to fight the law in the Constitutional Court. HDP’s Istanbul Deputy Zeliha Gulum put black tape over her mouth, while holding a sign that said, “Journalism is not a crime, the free press can't be silenced.” Standing at her rostrum, she demonstrated the speechlessness of her constituency for the majority of her speaking time.
“The judiciary in Turkey is under the control of the current AKP-MHP [alliance]. Kurdish journalists are under great pressure because we report these violations of rights and injustices that occur within the framework of special war policies,” said Roza Metîna, Jin News’ Kurdish editor and Mesopotamia Kurdish Women Journalists Platform (MKGP) spokesperson.
Journalists say that the law is designed to silence reporting that is critical of government policies. For example, reporting published by the MKGP has revealed how top figures in Turkey's military and government are wrongly acquitted of rape charges. “Women say that the current government enacted the censorship law to cover up its dirty policies. Because we often expose rapists, the Jin News women's news agency website was shut down by the AKP-MHP government that rules the Turkish state,” said Metîna.
During the session of parliament when the bill was passed, representatives from the Journalists’ Union of Turkey wore black masks and issued a statement calling the law “one of the heaviest censorship and self-censorship mechanisms in the history of the Republic.” Together with seven other leading press organizations, including the International Press Institute’s National Committee in Turkey and the Turkish Press Council, the Union rejected the bill outright.
“The preparations for the disinformation bill had been going on for a long time. It was not too surprising for that reason. But the surprising part is the three-year prison sentences for censorship charges,” said Gulsen Solaker, a domestic news and foreign policy reporter for Deutsche Welle Turkish.
The legislation, while an escalation, is just more of the same censorship of journalists for Solaker. “The government is trying to control and pressure the press and media. This is not a new case. My initial reaction, personally, as a journalist for 25 years, as someone who is experienced for Turkish standards, is that it has not actually affected my job and my process of news-making,” said Solaker. “When I receive information, I triple-check with sources. This new bill does not bring new pressure on me, because it has already been on us.”
Censorship extends to publications outside of the country. In July, Turkey blocked access to Deutsche Welle and Voice of America, allegedly for failing to obtain necessary licensing. To most observers, it is part of a thinly veiled ploy by the government to strengthen Turkey’s firewall against the spread of reporting produced by foreign news agencies. The use of VPNs and sister sites like InspiredMinds.de, however, still allow many Turkish readers to follow censored news published by Deutsche Welle.
Impacts outside of media
Whereas the latest bill represents a widespread crackdown on newsrooms and political offices, the impact that Turkey’s increasingly threatening censorship laws have on the culture sector shows that it will also have effects on the average citizen. Beral Madra, one of Turkey’s leading art workers, understood the bill’s passage as part of a long tradition.
“The culture sector is already experiencing a kind of censorship [for] almost a century. Evidently artists and art experts — including me — are always careful and always find new strategies to bypass the oppositional attacks,” said Madra.
In 2015, Madra resigned from her position as curator of the Çanakkale Biennial after suffering verbal attacks from the local AKP member of parliament, who held a press conference condemning her as anti-government and monitored her tweets. “The [AKP MP] made a press conference and condemned me as opposing the government, and forc[ed] the mayor to stop my curatorship," Madra said.
Turkey’s 2023 elections
Many observers believe that the bill’s timing reveals the AKP’s emergency state of politicking in anticipation of the country’s 2023 elections. According to Ali Babacan, the leading chair of the Democracy and Progress Party, a breakaway party that split with the AKP, the bill means that the AKP is panicking about its electoral strength in upcoming elections.
The bill’s underhanded politicization was perhaps most evident in one of its very first high-profile cases, which sought to criminalize the chair of the leading opposition party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, for transgressing the new law. In an ongoing politicized legal battle that began prior to the bill’s passage, Istanbul’s mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, a CHP party member under Kilicdaroglu and a potential 2023 presidential candidate, faces a sentence of over two years in prison and a political ban for allegedly “insulting" officials of Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council.
The so-called “disinformation” bill comes at a time of high tension: verbal conflicts between Turkey’s political offices and parliamentarians ensue in and out of court during a volatile, contested election cycle.
“It’s also the early days of the law. There’s only been a few cases, one or two journalists have been blamed in its context, and the prosecutor rejected that claim. There are cases related to ordinary citizens but we don't know the outcomes yet,” said Solaker. “We see that people are more hesitant, more cautious, more afraid on social media.”
“I don’t think that our journalism is greatly affected by this bill for now,” Solaker noted, however. “It may not indicate what will happen before the elections.”