Turkish reporters slam country’s new ‘fake news’ law

A kiosk in Istanbul on April 17, 2017, showing Turkish newspapers a day after Turkey’s referendum. Turkey currently ranks 149 out of 180 countries in the world press freedom index, with 90% of national media under government control, according to international non-profit organization Reporters Without Borders.

Yasin Akgul | Afp | Getty Images

Seven years ago, Sevgi Akarcesme reported on a series of police raids on Turkey’s media industry, which left a trail of newsrooms being shut down one by one — until the time for her own outlet came.

Akarcesme, then the editor-in-chief for what used to be Turkey’s number one English daily, Today’s Zaman, told CNBC on Tuesday that it was evident then that the police would start coming for her. That prompted her to leave in 2016 to take up a teaching role in the United States.

“Turkey has long been hell for journalists. It’s one of the largest prisons for journalists in the world in a way,” she said. 

Turkey’s Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure — which also oversees communication services — did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment on the remarks in this article.

Turkey’s Parliament last week ratified a law introducing jail terms for journalists and social media users who spread “fake news,” or disinformation. The term “fake news” is often defined, more broadly, as misleading or fabricated information peddled as legitimate news.

The law, proposed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, comes eight months before the country’s general election.

The bill, which still needs to be approved by Erdogan, stated that anyone who spreads false information about Turkey’s security to “create fear and disturb public order” will face a prison sentence of up to three years.

“With this new law … the goal is to control social media because conventional media is already under Erdogan’s control,” said Akarcesme.

Protesters holding Turkey’s Cumhuriyet daily newspapers during a demonstration before the trial of staff from the country’s main opposition daily on Sept. 11, 2017 at the Silivri district in Istanbul. The case, which opened in Istanbul in July, involved 17 current and former writers, cartoonists and executives from Cumhuriyet (“Republic”) who were tried on “terror” charges.

Ozan Kose | Afp | Getty Images

The law includes articles such as press card issuances and a procedure on correcting online disinformation. On top of that, sentences can be increased by up to half if the disinformation is spread through anonymous accounts.

“The haste with which this law was passed may indicate that the government’s objective is to increase pressure on journalists and social media users before the elections,” Turkish Journalists’ Association’s General Secretary Mustafa Kuleli wrote in an email to CNBC.

He added that it is unclear how prosecutors will mete out punishment against perpetrators as the crime is defined in “vague and open-ended terms” and lacks clear legal definitions.

‘A threat to anybody’

“This law does not only affect journalists, it does not only affect social media users. This law is a threat to anybody who has the ability to speak, or read and write,” Turkey representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ozgur Ogret, told CNBC. 

He added that the lack of a concrete definition of disinformation will lead to self-censorship — even when it comes to facts.

Supporters of Turkish newspaper Bugun gather outside its headquarters in Istanbul during a protest against the Turkish government’s crackdown on media outlets on Oct. 27, 2015.

Ozan Kose | Afp | Getty Images

“The bill provides a framework for extensive censorship of online information and the criminalization of journalism, which will enable the government to further subdue and control public debate in the lead up to Turkey’s general elections in 2023,” said a coalition of 22 press freedom organizations from around the world.

The statement released by the press freedom groups mentioned that the bill’s “vaguely-formulated definition” of what constitutes disinformation will subject millions of internet users to the risk of criminal sanction.

Turkey’s Transport and Infrastructure Deputy Minister Omer Fatih Sayan tweeted last week that he “regrets to see” that “hate speech, disinformation, manipulation” are growing “like an avalanche” on social media platforms.

“We must establish a cleaner and safer internet for our citizens, this is our most important duty,” he tweeted.

‘The last decade has been brutal’

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan declaring a three-month state of emergency and vowing to hunt down the “terrorist” group behind the 2016 coup attempt during a news conference following the National Security Council and cabinet meetings at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, July 20, 2016. Following the coup, a newsroom crackdown ensued and a series of trials against journalists were launched.

Adem Altan | Afp | Getty Images

Following the coup, newsroom crackdowns ensued and a series of trials against journalists were launched. 

Akarcesme added that in the wake of the July 15 coup attempt, no media outlets challenged the regime’s rhetoric.

“A lot of the variety in the media landscape has been lost in the last five to 10 years,” Ogret said.

Turkey currently ranks 149 out of 180 countries in the global Press Freedom Index, with 90% of national media under government control, according to international non-profit organization Reporters Without Borders.

When the index debuted in 2002, Turkey ranked 107 out of 172 and was categorized as “partly free.”

“There isn’t a time where Turkey did not have journalists imprisoned or outlets harassed, however … the last decade has been brutal for the Turkish media environment,” said Ogret.

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