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Turkey’s digital ‘fake news’ proposal fuels censorship fears

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Turkey’s ruling party has sent to parliament a draft bill seeking prison terms of as much as three years for the spread of “disinformation” and “fake news” on digital platforms, a move government critics say would enable censorship and stifle dissent.

Anyone distributing “false information” on Turkey’s domestic and external security, public order and welfare could face between one and three years in jail for instigating “concern, fear and panic” in society, according to the proposal seen by Bloomberg News.

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There could be stiffer penalties if the dissemination is linked to the “activities of an organization” or hides the identity of a “criminal offender,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party and its nationalist MHP ally propose in the draft.

Together the parties control 333 of parliament’s 600 seats.

“Those who get funded by various places and want to create chaos in our country will have to think again,” Deputy Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Omer Fatih Sayan said on Twitter of the bill. “We have never allowed and will never allow disinformation and manipulation on social media platforms.”

Turkey’s journalists’ union, however, condemned the proposed legislation and called for its immediate withdrawal. “The bill will boost systematic censorship and self-censorship in Turkey, instead of fighting disinformation,” said the union, known as TGS.

While countries around the world are introducing laws to fight disinformation, it’s unclear how that will be defined in Turkey, said Ozgur Ogret, Turkey representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists. The draft would restrict “already problematic press freedoms in Turkey,” Ogret said.

Turkey’s government has already tightened its grip on online content and digital platforms in recent years, while curbing official advertisements and announcements in opposition-linked media outlets.

Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index ranks Turkey 149th out of 180 nations, saying 90 percent of the national media is under government control.

The organization has accused Erdogan’s presidency of stepping up attacks on journalists to deflect attention from economic and other problems ahead of elections set for next year.

In 2020, Turkey passed a contentious law that obligated social-media companies with more than one million daily users in the country to appoint local representatives, and gave authorities more power to block access to sites.

The president has also repeatedly threatened to shut down some social media, citing what he considered to be personal attacks against himself and his family.

He’s been a vocal critic of the platforms, describing them as “a threat to democracy” and “a national security problem.”

Courts banned YouTube and Wikipedia for years, while access to Twitter was slowed to a trickle at times of heightened strife, such as cross-border operations into Syria and terrorist attacks at home.

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