If you are in Turkey, think twice before tweeting this article.
With a controversial new social media law, Turkish authorities now have the right to control and, if necessary, restrict freedom of expression online in ways that would be unthinkable in any democracy – or even in Turkey there. a few years old.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has long been criticized for muzzling dissenting voices and exercising control over mainstream media – but with a high penetration rate, social media in Turkey has been a relatively open forum for journalism independent and debate.
Today, like Orwell, Turkey’s “disinformation” law aims to criminalize the spread of disinformation, as defined by the government, and to regulate content. But critics fear that as the 2023 election approaches, the new rules could be used to silence opposition campaigns and narrow the already tight space for public debate. Worse, the bill allows the government to block Twitter or Facebook when it deems necessary or force them to share data with authorities.
The new legislative package, which was passed by parliament this week amid international protests and criticism, calls for a prison term of up to four to five years for articles and posts that “spread information inaccurate” in order to “create fear, panic. or “disrupt Turkey’s internal and external security”, “public order”, “public health”.
This criminalizes virtually any information that is not sanctioned by local authorities.
Take inflation, for example, one of the most debated issues in the country. Turkey’s official statistics agency puts the country’s annual inflation at 83.45%, but the official figure is questioned by many, including economists and journalists who say rising prices of a year on year is almost double. An independent watchdog, ENAG, estimates that annual consumer inflation for September is 186%. Under the new law, regular updates from ENAG, as well as its social media posts, could be banned – and those who share its content could be penalized as well. Likewise, any suggestion that Turkey’s official COVID-19 death figures are in fact higher, that energy prices are likely to rise, or that the government is mismanaging wildfires could be responsible. .
And the whistleblowers — forget. Investigative journalism would be virtually impossible under the new law.
But in a country deeply polarized along political lines, with growing opposition to Erdoğan’s regime, who can truly define “truth” and spot “misinformation”? Leave it to Turkish prosecutors, says the new legislation. Human rights columnist Gökçer Tahincioğlu notes that the bill has given prosecutors a broad mandate to identify the truth and seek a legal avenue against what they consider to be inaccurate. In a country where courts have already prosecuted journalists and economists for tweeting, in the midst of a currency crisis, that the Turkish lira is likely to lose value against the dollar, this does not sound good.
The new legislation is certainly not the first attempt by Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and his nationalist allies to tighten controls on the media. — but the current bill, dubbed a “censorship law” by opposition and rights groups, is certainly the toughest. In 2020, Turkish lawmakers gave the government sweeping powers to regulate social media content and mandated tech companies — including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube — open offices in Turkey. The government also imposed financial penalties and threatened to slow down traffic to these sites if their terms were not met.
Now he tightens the screws one more notch. Tech giants are required by law to appoint Turkish citizens to run their local office, store their data in Turkey, and provide user information if the government requests it. — or face blockages.
This seems to impose a significant responsibility on global companies to strike the right balance between staying open and preventing reputational damage if they become too compliant. Given the popularity of social media platforms in the country and the ease with which the Turkish government can stick a “terrorism” label on dissidents, the challenge is real. Messaging apps like Signal, Facetime and WhatsApp are widely used and have become the preferred method of correspondence for citizens and government officials. The government now wants to be regularly updated on the number of users, who talks to whom and, if necessary, what they talked about. In some cases, they may require encryption data and otherwise restrict usage.
In a country with a history of government eavesdropping and where even grandparents prefer WhatsApp to talk to family members, the new bill strips away an extra layer of privacy from ordinary citizens.
Facing electoral hurdles and dwindling support, Turkey’s ruling conservative-nationalist coalition appears to have picked a page from the authoritarian playbook — in hopes of controlling the information space as elections approach. For critics, the new law reinforces the idea that the ruling coalition is ready to resort to illiberal means to stay in power.
Turkey’s “disinformation” law certainly makes it more difficult for Erdogan’s opponents to campaign and organize and takes away one more freedom from its citizens. This reduces the space for debate and information sharing. And worse, if the results of the upcoming 2023 elections are close or contested, and the attitude of the Turkish government resembles that of former US President Donald Trump in 2018, the new law may prevent a significant pushback against the demands of the government.
But the new law is unlikely to fundamentally change Turkey’s electoral dynamics. Turkey is a special place in the sense that it is not fully democratic, but it is not a dictatorship either. Despite its illiberal turn, Turkey, unlike Russia and China, still has strong opposition and heated debate. Rather than changing people’s opinions, the new law is more likely to anger voters and push back young Turks already frustrated with unemployment and increasingly alienated from the government’s conservative agenda.
Ultimately, Turkish voters will make their decisions based on the economy and the skill of the presidential candidates. Erdoğan is clearly the choice of the ruling Islamist-nationalist coalition, but almost all polls suggest that the desire for change is slightly greater than support for Erdoğan. This means that the Turkish opposition bloc still has a chance if it can choose the right candidate and convince voters of its ability to govern. It is not given, but it is possible.
And along the way, if there are blackouts and social media bullying, it will only make voters angrier.