Journalists all over Turkey took to the streets this week to protest the new social media bill, which will further restrict expression and journalism in the country.
On the face of it, the draft bill, dubbed the ‘Censorship Act’ by opposition and media circles, aims to tackle “disinformation” . However, by introducing a prison sentence of up to three years for “news aimed to cause fear or panic among the populace”, it appears to be yet another tool in the government’s vast arsenal to restrict press freedom.
Tuesday saw the press workers union Basın-İş, the Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS) and the Journalists Association of Turkey (TGC) gather in Istanbul to protest the bill, which they called the ‘Silencing, Intimidation and Imprisonment Act.’
The draft is “one of the darkest bills to ever come up in the history of the republic”, Özge Yurttaş from Basın-İş said at the demonstration.
All media not affiliated with the government and all ordinary citizens are under threat of imprisonment from this bill, she said. “This bill will put everybody on social media on trial, on grounds of public interest and public and national security. The bill aims to silence all those who do not actively support the government.”
“But the truth is too powerful to be covered up. As long as we still have our naked voices, our pens and our cameras, we will continue to speak out, write and record the facts,” Yurttaş said.
The arrest of 16 Kurdish journalists on 8 June was a sign that the bill was to be brought on the agenda, the TGC’s Uğur Güç said.
“It is the government itself that produces the disinformation. They will throw us in prison if all we say is that inflation is at 150%. Or if tomorrow if we say that petrol has gone up they will again throw us in prison. We do not fear prison. We are arrested and prosecuted anyway. But we continue to write the truth,” he said.
The criminal offence identified in the draft is ‘disseminating false information’, and doing so via the press is cited as an aggravating factor.
Supreme Court member Judge İhsan Baştürk told the Parliamentary Justice Commission last week during the discussions on the draft that the criminal offence was ill-defined in the law, and that in 99% of cases the defined offence could in any case only be committed via the press.
The bill also includes vague expressions such as, “domestic and foreign security of the country” and “disrupting public peace”.
“It is not difficult to estimate that determining what these concepts signify will cause significant arguments among the judiciary during their implementation,” Baştürk said.
“Determining how the aggravating factor of ‘disseminating the news in a manner to promote disruptance of public peace’ would be identified is another difficulty we would face,” he added.
The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) said in its objections to the bill in the Justice Commission discussions that the bill aims to suppress objections to the government’s intervention in people’s lives,
“This bill is on the agenda to suppress objections to bans on concerts and demonstrations, to the HDP closure case and the Kobane case in the courts, and to prevent reporting on resources allocated to foundations and associations founded by religious sects. This is a law to censor and silence,” the HDP said. “The Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments have always sought to restrict freedoms in the media. First they changed the ownership of the traditional media in favour of their sycophants, and then they aimed to eliminate any freedom for the press by seizures and shut-downs.”
The bill also removes authority to issue permits for new newspapers, journals and news websites from the prosecutor’s offices specialising in the media, and grants it to the Press Advertisement Institution (BİK), which has previously been accused of using its existing authority to allocate public advertisements as a weapon against opposition publications.
These permits used to be issued by the government itself directly, but the authority for this was transferred to prosecutors’ offices in order to reduce government control over the media as part of Turkey’s EU accession reforms, the HDP’s Rüştü Tiryaki told Mezopotamya Agency.
“Now they want the BİK to handle the permits. And who runs the BİK? The Information and Communication Technologies Authority [under the Ministry of Communications and Infrastructure] and the President’s Office,” Tiryaki said.
The bill will limit who could apply for press credentials, and allow data-gathering from encrypted instant messaging apps, Tiryaki said.