The International Press Institute (IPI) today expressed concern over the most recent discussions on a new bill that would criminalize the spreading of “fake news”. Initial details about the bill raise serious alarm about a further step forward in Turkey’s efforts to control media and information online.

On August 18, 2021, Hüseyin Yayman, an MP for Turkey’s governing AKP party and the chair of the Digital Platforms Commission of the parliament, said in a press conference that social media platforms with the capacity of 64 million users in Turkey have significant impact on social life and pose a danger to governments and democracies with their constant reproduction of “fake news”, disinformation and hate speech.

“On the one hand, we were dealing with the recent wildfires, floods, and earthquakes, on the other hand, we are dealing with a bigger calamity that is social media”, Yayman said. Stating that there is a need for new social media regulation to avert “fake news”, Yayman claimed that the draft bill the government is working on will not be about bans, censorship, or penalties.

Local news outlets reported that the government is finalizing a draft bill on “fake news” with the aim of bringing it to parliament for a vote in October after the summer recess ends. According to first details from the bill revealed in a pro-government newspaper, insults on social media platforms will be penalized with jail sentence from three months to two years, and those who spread and participate in producing “fake news” would face imprisonment from one to five years. The bill will also reportedly seek to establish subchapters in the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) and the Radio and Television High Council (RTÜK) to regulate and monitor online news channels and websites that produce and spread misinformation via social media platforms.

“We have seen a decisive push from the Turkish government to regulate and control social media platforms over the last year. Based on the information we have learned so far, this draft bill appears to be an escalation of that effort, whose goal is to increase censorship, especially online. The key concern here relates to the use of vague terms and criteria as well as the risk of abuse by state authorities, all of which can be used to criminalize dissenting voices”, IPI Turkey Programme Coordinator Renan Akyavaş said. “It is essential that Turkish authorities publish the full draft of this bill in advance and discuss the planned regulations with civil society groups and independent media representatives to ensure that any legislation meets international standards and does not interfere with the fundamental rights of press freedom and freedom of expression.”

The discussion on a new social media regulation was initiated after Turkish President Erdoğan said in a speech on July 21 that the regulations on social media put into force in October 2020 should be taken one step further by now focusing on so-called “fake news” produced on social media. The 2020 regulation required social media platforms to implement a number of new rules that deeply undermined free expression online in Turkey, including a requirement to assign a local representative in Turkey, which would expand Turkey’s censorship powers over social media companies. Following the law’s enforcement on October 1, numerous platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, were fined for declining to comply with the terms of the draconian social media law. In March 2021, Twitter announced it would appoint a local representative, becoming one of the last representatives to do so.