Turkey, a country where polarisation is getting sharper than ever, and which has one of the largest prisons in the world for journalists, students, and opinion leaders, is struggling with its new disinformation bill. Under Erdoğan’s rule, whoever opposes him, and his ruling party may face legal harassment or could even be sent to prison directly.
On December 14, 2022, journalist Sinan Aygül was imprisoned under the new media bill, then released ten days later when his lawyer objected to his detention. Aygül had tweeted about a sexual assault case allegedly linked to a police officer and a soldier. However, it turned out that the information was not correct and so he deleted his tweet and apologised for having been misinformed. Hours later, the police raided his house and took him into custody.
Considering Turkey’s current political climate, the country continues to neglect the freedoms of its people, especially freedom of expression and press freedom. After the coup attempt on July 15-16, 2016, around 170 media outlets were shut down or seized by the government to control the media. This is not new for Turkey. With AKP at the helm as a ruling party, for 20 years, state control over the media has tightened. Now, independent news outlets — only a few are left — are finding it unable to operate.
Turkey on the Press Freedom Index
In 2022’s Press Freedom Index, Turkey ranked 149th. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says: “Authoritarianism is gaining ground in Turkey, challenging media pluralism. All possible means are used to undermine critics”.
According to the RSF, almost 90 per cent of national media in Turkey is now under state control over the five years. The public has headed to the critical or independent media outlets of various political persuasions to learn about the impact of the economic and political crisis on the country, including local TV channels Fox TV, Halk TV, Sözcü and TELE1. Also, they have started to follow international news websites such as BBC Turkish, VOA Turkish and Deutsche Welle Turkish.
Not only should the media landscape be seen in this frame, but the socio-economic context should also be taken into account. For example, as the general election approaches, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stepped up attacks against journalists to distract attention from the country’s economic and democratic decline and strengthen its political base. Tactics such as systematic censorship on the internet, baseless lawsuits against critical media outlets, or misuse of the judicial system have helped Erdoğan gain popularity, even as he continues to be implicated in a major corruption case, as stated by the RSF.
Also, the government endangered media pluralism in Turkey by using institutions such as the Press Advertising Council (BIK) and the High Council for Broadcasting (RTÜK), against critical dailies and TV channels. According to the RSF, the government’s private-sector allies gave their ads to media outlets that gave them favourable coverage. The institutions above put financial pressure on and weakened independent outlets by allocating government advertising and imposing heavy fines on them.
Moreover, critical voices and journalists have been targeted online for criticising the government or pro-government figures. As a result, many are deliberately subjected to online smear campaigns by politicians, pro-government figures or news outlets.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released its annual report for 2022 and revealed that, following Iran, China and Myanmar, Turkey ranked fourth in criminalising journalists. In 2022’s second half, 25 Kurdish journalists were sent behind bars. It was a sharp rise from 18 in 2021 to 40 in 2022. Most of them are facing terror charges solely for performing their journalistic duties. In addition, these Kurdish journalists are alleged to be linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
After the controversial disinformation bill – which can be called the censorship bill really — was accepted in parliament in October 2022, many journalists fear the arrests can rise and there could be a new wave of attacks on press freedom.
The ‘disinformation’ bill
With the ease of communication brought by the internet, it is now much easier to not be dependent on mainstream media to disseminate information and mobilise. Therefore, the rise of new threats and new measures.
After the internet became a more popular tool, newspapers and broadcasting naturally moved to online platforms. It is thus no surprise that state control mechanisms are shaped according to the new media tools and have transformed with other interventions.
In this case, the internet is a tool that both liberates its users and leads to tighter surveillance of states through data tracking. Social media is a rich data bank for governments; whatever users do on the internet leaves a trace.
Turkey is not free
According to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2022 Report, Turkey is not free and ranks 32nd out of 100 countries. In 2015, Turkey was ‘partly free’ for Freedom House. However, the country is now among countries including China, Russia, Iran and Sudan and is behind ‘partly free’ countries such as Lebanon, Libya and Malaysia.
Law No 5651
Crimes on the internet are regulated in Turkey by law No 5651 of 2007. The law, which has had significant changes since 2014, was expanded to the so-called ‘disinformation bill’ in October 2022.
According to the new media law, the public prosecutor can request an investigation, and a judge can order a suspension or ban of content or account on social media platforms. Twitter accounts and news websites were the most affected by this case. The legislation consists of 40 articles. The most dangerous one is Article 29 – ‘Public dissemination of misleading information’, which says that spreading false information can cause someone to be punished with up to three years in prison.
According to IFEX, the definition of ‘false information’ could be abused by Turkey’s heavily politicised judicial system. Also, for IFEX, the new media bill will likely encourage self-censorship among citizens and journalists.
Even though the bill passed through parliament on October 13, 2022, there is still vagueness in framing the new bill. National and international rights groups and NGOs have talked about the issue. However, it still needs to be determined what sort of false information was mentioned in the new bill. European Federation of Journalists’ Vice President Mustafa Kuleli says: “As this crime is defined in rather vague and open-ended terms, it is unclear how prosecutors will determine ‘fake news’ and those who participate in its dissemination.”
Kuleli says social media platforms and internet sites will be required to hand over personal details of users suspected of ‘propagating misleading information’. According to his reference, the law includes concepts such as ‘disinformation’, ‘baseless information’, and ‘distorted information’ without providing legal definitions. He also agrees that the judiciary can abuse this new bill, and any critical posts on social media could be denounced as ‘misinformation’.
Disabled Web, a platform reports blocked websites, news and social media accounts, reports for the Freedom of Expression Association about annual published statistical information on the Internet content ban from Turkey, revealing that most of the powers are used through ‘administrative measures’ and sent to the Information Technologies and Communication Authority or Access Providers Association without seeking judicial approval. Based on the law, politicians and administrations can attempt to silence internet users who express dissent or disagreement.
According to the Freedom of Expression Association’s Disable Web 2021 report, access to 574,798 websites and domains has been blocked in Turkey. In addition, 50,000 URLs; 8,350 Twitter accounts; 55,500 tweets; 13,500 YouTube videos; 9,500 Facebook content; and 9,000 Instagram content were sanctioned under Law No 5651.
Twitter and transparency
According to Twitter’s transparency report from July to December 2021, the platform received 47,572 legal demands to remove content specifying 198,931 accounts. The report stated a 10 per cent increase in the legal demands for content removal worldwide compared to the first period of 2021.
There was a significant increase in removal requests from Turkey. According to the report, Turkey ranked fourth among the countries with the highest legal ‘content removal’ demands by official authorities, after Japan, Russia and South Korea. Additionally, 97 per cent of the total legal demand volume in the world consists of five countries: Japan, Russia, South Korea, Turkey and India. These five countries sent the most legal demands to Twitter over the past three years.
The report also stated that Turkish authorities made 4,284 separate content removal requests for 8,496 accounts in July-December 2021, which means a 24 per cent increase in the requests compared to the first half of the year.
The data under “verified journalists and news sources” reveals that the world’s censorship climate is increasing daily, whereas countries with the highest number of requests to block access through court decisions and other legal demands about journalists and news sources. Twitter approved those accounts, and there was a 103 per cent increase worldwide compared to the first period of 2021.
The report says Turkey ranked second after India among countries with the highest number of requests to block verified accounts, with 78 requests. This number was 59 in the first period of 2021.
Some critical voices, journalists, news outlets, and political figures’ Twitter accounts were denied access to court decisions. However, according to the Freedom of Expression Association, Twitter itself did not take action according to those court decisions.
Case Study: Can Dündar
Prominent investigative journalist Can Dündar’s Twitter account – with nearly six million followers — is one of those banned for ‘national security and protection of public order’ by a court decision in Turkey. He is critical of President Erdoğan; one of his investigative stories in 2015 uncovered the existence of weapons that Turkish intelligence was helping Islamist groups in Syria with. He was arrested after the story and remained in prison until the Constitutional Court released him after three months, terming his detention unconstitutional. He then moved to Germany – his case is still ongoing. He is now also placed on the terrorist wanted list.
Case Study: İsmail Saymaz
İsmail Saymaz’s Twitter account was another one that was banned for violating personal rights. He has almost three and a half million followers on Twitter. He is another critical voice, having reported and monitored many significant legal cases in Turkey. For example, he published a book about Ali İsmail Korkmaz, who was physically assaulted by police officers and died during the Gezi Park protests. Saymaz followed his case and revealed all the details missing in the court case.
Case Study: Barış Yarkadaş
Journalist, writer and former MP from the opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP), Barış Yarkadaş’s Twitter account was blocked for the same reason as İsmail Saymaz. He is known for revealing some controversial information about the ruling AKP and President Erdoğan.
Case Study: Sözcü Daily Newspaper
The Sözcü Daily Newspaper’s verified Twitter account was blocked for violating personal rights. Sözcü is a critical news outlet that usually supports opposition parties in Turkey and has three and a half million followers on Twitter.
Case Study: Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)
Pro-Kurdish Party, Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) official account was banned for ‘national security and protection of public order’. The controversy of the HDP is known about its links to the militant group PKK that operated attacks in Turkey. The party faces a legal case for complete closure, which is still ongoing. The court decision is expected before the coming elections in June 2023.
Targeted on Twitter
Twitter has been one of Turkey’s most used social media platforms since the Gezi Park protests in 2013. Undoubtedly, since then, some significant figures, politicians, journalists, artists, and musicians, who mostly criticise AKP and Erdogan’s administration, discrimination, and racism, were targeted through online organised trolling campaigns by pro-government figures or its newsrooms with misleading news.
For instance, the main opposition party CHP’s leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was targeted online by a pro-government newspaper Yeni Akit in November 2022. The newspaper accused the CHP’s leader Kılıçdaroğlu of waiting for the recent terrorist attack in İstanbul, İstiklal Square to reveal statements and promises for the development of innovation that will prevent Turkey from the industrial revolution in November. On Twitter, Yeni Akit posted that “Kılıçdaroğlu said in October to wait for November. Whether he meant the bombing (in İstanbul) is on the agenda.”
After the incident, Kılıçdaroğlu’s lawyer Celal Çelik stated that he immediately filed a criminal complaint against the newspaper, saying the news was fake and defamatory.
Yeni Akit is one of the most prominent pro-government newspapers that usually targets opposition leaders, critical voices, journalists, artists and political figures with false information. However, its misleading news impacts AKP’s trolls who support the state and follow severe online smear campaigns against those figures.
Turkey’s Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu’s tweet is another example of misleading information. He targeted Boğaziçi University’s students and gender diverse persons on his posts, alleging the students knocked down a photo considered holy. He called them ‘perverts’ on his post; Twitter in France denied access to his post, finding it hate speech. In a statement, Twitter said France found the minister’s post contrary to the local law of France.
Soylu has been targeting Boğaziçi University’s students since 2021 for protesting the appointment of Melih Bulu as rector of the university by President Erdoğan.
Karel Valansi, a columnist for Şalom Newspaper, was targeted by pro-government newspapers, Takvim and Beyaz Gazete after Israel attacked Palestine in May 2021. The news outlets accused the journalist of protecting Israel over her posts on Twitter about the developments regarding the airstrikes carried out by Israel. The papers claimed Valansi did not comment on the conflicts between the countries. They also cited her critical post about the attack on a synagogue in Turkey in 2017. The article targeted her by saying, “The statements of Karel Valansi, the columnist of the Şalom Newspaper, draw attention to protecting Israel, the Zionist terror state.”
Takvim and Beyaz Gazete are other pro-government newspapers that target opposition figures. Their manipulative content and misinformation may come from sources from the government.
Another example is women journalists Nevşin Mengü, Burcu Karakaş, Suzan Demir, Neşe İdil, and lawyer and columnist İpek Maya Saygın. The journalists were targeted after right-wing party Zafer (Victory) Party shared an anti-refugee short film called ‘Silent Invasion’, inciting its supporters. The journalists were threatened after the Victory Party, known for its anti-refugee policies, shared a photo of French women refugees in Nazi camps from the Second World War on its Twitter account on May 3, 2022. The post sparked public condemnation. However, an unidentified account, allegedly one of the representatives of the Victory Party, threatened journalists Nevşin Mengü, Burcu Karakaş, and lawyer İpek Maya Saygın by quoting the post, defending a ‘tariff’, which mentioned women refugees in Nazi camps with a picture, should be applied to these journalists.
These are just a few examples of how misleading news can lead to online attacks. Critical voices, dissident journalists, and politicians are targeted by much fake news in Turkey. Especially on social media platforms such as Twitter, these people are targeted by organised trolls. At times, these organised trolling campaigns can have dangerous dimensions; the disclosure of the addresses of those being targeted, mostly women, ends up making women suffer the most from these severe online attacks.