Turkish gov’t seeks to expand legal scope of espionage, endangering free speech

Justice Minister Yılmaz Tunç

The Turkish government is preparing to introduce criminal penalties for “agents of influence” in a new judicial package that will criminalize “black propaganda” against Turkey, in yet another development feared to stifle freedom of speech in the country, Turkish Minute reported on Wednesday, citing a report in a pro-government newspaper on Wednesday.

The report by Yeni Şafak said the ninth judicial package, moved forward by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), includes articles about the “new kinds of spying.” The package, which proposes amendments to the penal code, is expected to soon come to the floor of parliament.

People who are accused of disseminating black propaganda against Turkey or who appear to be speaking in favor of Turkey when in fact they are actually speaking against it as well as individuals who damage the country’s economic, social or public order will be defined as “agents of influence” and face prison time, according to Yeni Şafak.

The prosecution of social media users who are accused of acting as “agents of influence” will also be possible under the new legislation, which is feared to increase the weapons in the government’s arsenal for enforcing censorship and tightening its control over social media and independent journalists.

Justice Minister Yılmaz Tunç, following recent police operations targeting Israeli spy networks in Turkey, hinted that the government was working on new legislation to prevent foreign countries from spying in Turkey.

In a series of operations earlier this year, Turkish authorities detained dozens of people suspected of planning kidnappings and engaging in espionage for Israeli intel service Mossad, leading to the arrest of more than 20 suspects. Tunç said on March 8 that 63 people had been arrested in Turkey for alleged espionage for Israel since 2021, which rose to 65 with the arrest of two others in April.

These events have heightened tensions between Turkey and Israel as there were reports of Israel’s intention to target members of Palestinian militant group Hamas in Turkey.

In a recent visit to the Yeni Şafak daily, Tunç said the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) defines espionage as a crime when the use of secret information and documents are involved but that today many other technologies are used for spying. He said some countries and organizations are able to conduct spying activities in other countries with the use of these new technologies.

“We have draft legislation that aims to prevent our country from being subjected to such operations and make sure that the new kind of espionage activities are thoroughly investigated,” the minister said.

Article 328 of the TCK defines political and military espionage as crimes requiring a prison sentence of 15 to 20 years and an aggravated life sentence when committed to serve the interests of a country at war with Turkey.

With the new amendments, the scope of Article 328 will be expanded to include “agents of influence.” It is not yet clear what length of prison sentences will be sought for “agents of influence.”

The fears created by the new legislation are similar to those when the AKP government pressed ahead with a “disinformation law” in October 2022, which criminalized the dissemination of “false or misleading information.”

The law, which has so far led to the investigation of dozens of journalists, is criticized for providing a framework for extensive censorship of online information and the criminalization of journalism.

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