ISTANBUL – Turks could soon face up to five years in prison for spreading false information on social media, according to reports of the government’s latest crackdown on online communications.
Proposals due to be submitted to parliament when it returns in October include a one to five year sentence for spreading false information, while those convicted of insults online face up to two years in prison, according to the pro-government party. Turkiye newspaper reported.
There are also plans to create a social media branch within government to monitor online comments.
The reported plans are said to be the latest in what critics say is an effort to control free speech and access to unbiased news in Turkey, where all but a handful of newspapers and TV news channels are controlled by the government or its supporters.
“At the moment it’s quite ambiguous, but I think its mission is to intimidate users of social media,” said Erkan Saka, media manager at Istanbul Bilgi University.
Saka added, “This is part of this crackdown and restriction on social media. The government already has the tools to restrict social media, but people who are sued for what they write on social media are usually released after a few months. Now they would like to criminalize this criticism via social media. “
Cathryn Grothe, Research Associate at Freedom House, described the development as part of an “ongoing trend of the degradation of Internet freedom.”
She added: “This is another step towards cyberauthoritarianism that we see under Erdogan and under the current crackdown on free speech and journalists in Turkey. Criminal sanction is really problematic because we know that these laws tend to have very vague wording in terms of what is defined as fake news. “
The development comes shortly after the government claimed that a Twitter plea for help during wildfires was an orchestrated attempt to undermine morale and confidence in the authorities.
The #HelpTurkey hashtag has led to a criminal investigation amid allegations it was designed to panic and humiliate the government, which has come under heavy criticism for its response to the deadly fires.
The government said the hashtag was spread by fake accounts that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called “terror of lies … spread from America, Europe and certain other places.”
Recently, social media has seen an increase in anti-refugee posts following reports of an increase in the number of Afghans crossing the Iranian border into Turkey and violence against Syrian refugees in Ankara.
“Over the past two weeks, some Twitter accounts have been posting very provocative statements about refugees, who could easily be arrested and officials arrested for not using anonymous accounts,” Saka said. “The government appears to have allowed this to happen to create a climate conducive to a law against disinformation on social media. “
Earlier this year, legislation came into force to force social media companies with more than one million daily users to appoint a representative and store user data in Turkey, condemned as an attack on freedom in Turkey. line and an expansion of state surveillance.
According to a recent study, Twitter and Facebook are the main sources of information for more than a third of Turks, and the growing restriction of social media – one of the last bastions of relatively open and free public debate – is seen by some as a prelude to elections scheduled for 2023 or earlier.
In recent months, the opposition has launched effective Twitter campaigns to highlight the government’s alleged mismanagement, for example asking where has gone “missing” $ 128 billion in foreign exchange reserves.
A recent report by the Istanbul-based Association for Freedom of Expression, revealed that legal action was taken against 32,000 social media accounts last year, while some 58,800 websites were banned.
The government says its approach to regulating social media is based on European models, specifically citing Germany.
However, German legislation of 2017 targets hate speech online and forces platforms like Twitter and Facebook to remove illegal content within a certain time frame.
The law, concerned not to infringe on freedom of expression, does not threaten users with prison sentences and does not aim to combat fake news.
“These are protective laws that are very specific about the kind of online speech platforms should regulate – hate speech, incitement to violence. There are very clear definitions and generally do not provide for this type of penalty for users, ”said Grothe.