Turkey’s ‘disinformation’ bill to have pre-election ‘chilling effect’: Watchdog

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Turkey’s proposed “disinformation” bill threatens free speech and could further harm journalism ahead of next year’s elections, a European rights watchdog’s legal body said, calling for Turkey’s parliament to reject it.

The Venice Commission, which advises the Council of Europe, said prison sentences and other fallout from the draft legislation would be disproportionate to its aims and could lead to “arbitrary restrictions of freedom of expression.”

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President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government says the legislation would address misinformation in the press and on social media. His ruling AK Party and allies have a majority in parliament and are expected to adopt it as soon as this week.

Critics, including opposition parties and press groups, are primarily concerned over an article saying those who spread false information about Turkey’s security to create fear and disturb public order would face one to three years in prison.

“The Commission is particularly concerned with the potential consequences of such provision, namely, the chilling effect and increased self-censorship, not least in view of the upcoming elections in June 2023,” it said late on Friday.

It said the bill “constitutes an interference with the freedom of expression” protected by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). It asked lawmakers to clarify terms in the bill and to reject the draft amendment, which was debated last week.

There are alternative non-criminal ways to counter misinformation and disinformation in a democratic society, the Venice Commission said in a 23-page assessment.

The bill would continue a decades-long crackdown on free speech and the media under Erdogan, who faces tight presidential and parliamentary elections next year.

A Reuters investigation recently showed how the mainstream media has become a tight chain of command of government-approved headlines.

Parliament is set to resume debate over the legislation on Tuesday after it passed the first 15 articles last week.

Turkey faces suspension from the Council of Europe over an ECHR judgment that it ignored an earlier 2019 ruling calling for the release from prison of philanthropist Osman Kavala.

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