Jturkish journalists are used to working under political pressure. Now the rest of the country is feeling it too. A new media law passed last month criminalizes the sharing of fake news, with penalties of up to three years in prison, and a further 18 months if the news was shared anonymously.
The government says the law is needed to tackle the spread of misinformation on social media platforms. Other countries, including Germany and America, are also considering legislation to hold platforms to account. But opponents say the Turkish law is only aimed at deterring criticism of President Recep Tayyip Erdogans’ regime, seven months ahead of elections that will be the toughest he has faced in his two decades in power.
It’s upside down, said Taylan Yildiz, a former Silicon Valley tech worker and member of the opposition Iyi party. The whole world is talking about regulating social media companies. But in Turkey, the law targets individuals.
Turkey is already one of the biggest jailers of journalists and dissidents in the world. Those imprisoned are usually charged with violating general anti-terrorism laws or insulting the president. Formerly independent newspapers and television stations have been forcibly closed or sold off to pro-Erdogan businessmen.
In recent years, many ousted journalists have flocked to social media sites, podcasts and YouTube channels, where they find large audiences: nine out of ten Turks use at least one social media platform. In 2020, the government passed a law requiring the largest sites to appoint representatives in Turkey, who would be responsible for legal cases and content removal requests from regulators. Many platforms, including YouTube, Facebook and TikTok, have complied with this.
The new law expands the responsibility of platforms to transmit information about users and broadens the penalties for non-compliance, including limiting the bandwidth of sites. This means that access to social media could be severely limited on election day, although previous blockages on Wikipedia and Twitter meant little to tech-savvy Turks, who simply turned on their vpns.
It’s not just journalists who are worried about the new law. Independent economists and pollsters fear prosecution if their findings contradict official data on inflation and public opinion. Private citizens are also in the line of fire. Simply sharing or liking someone else’s post can now result in lawsuits. An army of bureaucrats from the presidential communications office comb through social media for critical content.
The irony, according to Turkish press unions, is that the biggest producers of fake news are the pro-government media, which reproduce official statements and carry out smear campaigns against opponents. One of the largest media groups is owned by people close to the president.
When disinformation comes from politicians, will they be prosecuted like journalists and citizens? We know the answer is no, said Gokhan Durmus, president of the Union of Turkish Journalists. The government calls it the disinformation law, but all along we’ve been saying it’s a censorship law.
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