Turkey’s ‘disinformation’ bill could irreparably harm free speech prior to 2023 elections: PACE

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)’s Monitoring Committee has expressed concern over a Turkish government-backed bill that criminalizes the dissemination of “false or misleading information” and stipulates prison sentences, saying it could cause “irreparable harm” to the exercise of free speech prior to the 2023 elections in the country, Turkish Minute reported.

On Oct. 4 Turkish lawmakers began debating a government-backed bill that could intensify a years-long crackdown on critical reporting in Turkey, having approved its first 14 articles so far. The bill, which was proposed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in May, has already been approved by two parliamentary committees.

Co-rapporteurs John Howell (United Kingdom, EC/DA) and Boriss Cilevics (Latvia, SOC) said the committee was “very concerned” about the possible consequences of the bill in view of the presidential and parliamentary elections planned for June 2023, urging the Turkish authorities, in light of the Venice Commission’s recently published urgent opinion, not to enact the draft amendment to the Criminal Code.

The urgent opinion of the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters, which was prepared at the request of PACE’s Monitoring Committee, was released on Oct. 7.

It focused on Article 29 of the draft law, which would amend the Turkish Penal Code by adding a provision (Article 217/A) that would subject persons found guilty of publicly disseminating “false or misleading information” to between one and three years in prison and would increase by half the penalty for offenders who hide their identity or act on behalf of an organization.

The commission said such an amendment would amount to an interference with freedom of expression that would “neither be necessary in a democratic society nor proportionate to the legitimate aims of prevention of disorder and protection of national security, of health and of rights of others.”

It also pointed to the potential detrimental impact of the article, namely, the chilling effect and increased self-censorship, recommending that Turkish authorities not enact the draft amendment of Article 217/A to the Turkish Penal Code.

The AKP government has been relentless in its crackdown on critical media outlets, particularly after a coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

As an overwhelming majority of the country’s mainstream media has come under government control over the last decade, Turks have taken to social media and smaller online news outlets for critical voices and independent news.

Turks are already heavily policed on social media, and many have been charged with insulting President Erdoğan or his ministers, or criticism related to foreign military incursions and the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Turkey was classified as “not free” by Freedom House in its “Freedom in the World 2022” index.

More than 90 percent of Turkey’s media networks “depend on public tenders and are owned by large businesses with close personal ties to President Erdoğan,” according to a Freedom House report released in February.

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