Erdogan disguises his attack on free speech with new law

The spokesman for the Turkish government has presented what will be yet another episode of censorship in Turkey
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PHOTO/PRESIDENCIA TURCA via AP  -   Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media after Friday prayers, in Istanbul, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021

For years, the Turkish population has been witnessing the numerous attacks on freedom of expression in their country since Recep Tayyip Erdogan became president in 2014. Censorship has been one of the hallmarks of the government which, now, in the midst of all the disputes in which the country is immersed, intends to pass a new law that will attack, once again, the fundamental rights of Turkish society. The decision was announced by the government's spokesman, Omer Celik, during a press conference held after the meeting of the Central Committee of his party, Justice and Development.

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REUTERS/WILL RUSSELL - Omer Celik, spokesperson of the ruling Justice and Development Party

Celik referred to the draft law already submitted earlier to parliament, which would be responsible for regulating news spread through social media. He said that "the first headline for this (seeking to pass the law), is to protect the citizen from fake news". He further claimed that "fake news spreads very easily here. There is a need for regulation in this sense". In other words, if this law is passed, it will be the government itself that authorises the publication and dissemination of news on networks, which would represent a further step forward in the tight control that Erdogan's government has been imposing for some time now.

"We held two sessions on this issue. But we cannot say that a result was achieved during those meetings. The most important issue is to protect our citizens and democracy from fake news," explained the Turkish spokesman. He justified this new measure as a preventive tool against possible attacks by other countries against Turkey or even terrorist offensives: "We should not forget that we see that foreign countries and terrorist organisations use social media very intensively".

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AFP/ADEM ALTAN - A group of people stand behind a banner reading in Turkish "We cannot breathe. Journalism cannot be drowned", during a rally outside the Ankara governor's offices on 29 June 2021, demanding protection for journalists from police following the violent arrest of Istanbul-based Turkish photojournalist Bulent Kilic while covering a Pride march on 26 June.

The new law that Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government intends to push through will allow penalties regulated in the Penal Code to be imposed on people who create or publish false news on social media. It also includes the option of sanctioning those who use the networks to insult or threaten other users. A law that, a priori, should not really have negative effects on the rights of Turks, but given the track record of the current government, it is very difficult - not to say impossible - to believe that such measures are created to be used in good faith and not for the benefit of the party in power.

According to the media outlet KRT, in the new regulation drafted by Justice and Development, it was decided that those accused of insulting a person on social media would be prosecuted and could face a prison sentence of 3 months to 2 years, and those who post or share false news would face a sentence of 1 to 5 years. However, this comes as no surprise to the Turkish population, who have long been warning, from some of the opposition opinion leaders, that the passing of such a measure was only a matter of time.

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REUTERS/UMIT BEKTAS - In response to the police arrest of photographer Bulent Kilic for covering the banned Pride parade on 26 June, media workers gather in protest against pressure on freedom of expression and journalism in Istanbul, Turkey, 29 June 2021.

Turkish writer Yavuz Bayder has spoken out about the bill, saying that "Erdogan's moves in this regard target the social networks for which he has repeatedly expressed his disdain, and the increasingly popular small internet news sites, which are severely demonised by the pro-government media and their supporters". Turkish society itself knows better than anyone the ways of a president who has done - and continues to do - everything he can to maintain absolute control over the information that reaches the population of the country he presides over, with the sole aim of perpetuating his power.