The IPI global network of journalists, editors, and publishers is concerned by the Turkish government’s lack of transparency around a newly established “Centre for Combating Disinformation”, which the government announced recently via Twitter. Although the centre’s purpose remains unclear, the prospect of granting a government body a mandate to combat “disinformation” raises serious alarm – especially in a country where authorities deliberately conflate critical journalism with disinformation.
On August 5, the director of communications for the Republic of Turkey, Fahrettin Altun, announced on Twitter the establishment of a “Centre for Combating Disinformation”. Altun wrote that the centre will be established as a separate unit under the directorate of communications (which is affiliated with the office of the president) in order to “counter the systematic disinformation campaigns directed against Turkey”. He added that İdris Kardaş, a former columnist for the pro-government news outlet A Haber, was appointed as the coordinator of the newly established unit.
Altun’s announcement was met with criticism from the independent press and professional journalism organizations. The announcement was criticized for the arbitrary nature of the decision to establish the “Centre for Combating Disinformation”, the lack of transparency behind this unit’s organizational structure, and the ambiguity of its means and ends. The chairperson of the Journalists’ Union of Turkey, Gökhan Durmuş, drew attention to the government’s systematically ignoring local journalism organizations in its major decisions concerning the press. “We consider the Centre for Combating Disinformation to be a centre for assaulting press freedom”, Durmuş said.
The establishment of the centre should be seen in the context of the government’s recent attempts to control the information environment as the country heads towards the next elections. One such attempt is the controversial “disinformation” bill, which threatens imprisonment for those deemed to distribute “deceptive information” publicly. The parliamentary vote on that bill was recently postponed because of public pushback. However, shortly thereafter, the state-run agency responsible for the distribution of public ads to newspapers, the Press Advertising Agency (BİK), introduced ambiguous amendments to several articles of the Press Code of Ethics, opening up further paths to deprive critical media of public advertisement. Such ads are crucial to the financial sustainability of many media.
In the meantime, the Turkish government’s telecommunications regulator, RTÜK, has been issuing an unprecedented number of penalties for media content, including a nationwide broadcast ban on Deutsche Welle and Voice of America.