Disinformation law further muzzles dissent – and critical reporting

The Turkish government recently hosted a series of panel discussions in New York and Washington DC, to emphasise the importance of international solidarity and fighting disinformation in the wake of natural disasters.

The first event featured a video message from AK-Party Communications Director Fahrettin Altun, who insisted the government is not censoring the media, only trying to curb disinformation that threatens national security.

Yet as the country readies for the polls in a highly contested general and presidential election this Sunday, human rights and media watchdog groups are voicing concerns about the fairness of an election led by a ruling party that controls mainstream media, and relentlessly cracks down on dissenting voices.

Journalists are a target – with 50 behind bars, according to the International Press Institute’s live tracker.

Earlier this week, ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch called on authorities “to ensure the right to freedom of expression and privacy,” amid concerns that the government will exert “its considerable control over the digital ecosystem” to shape the election outcome.” Government officials have already begun challenging the integrity of the elections, labelling any AK-Party electoral loss a “political coup.”

A dire media landscape 

The erosion of media freedom in Turkey has been well documented.

In June 2022, Project on Middle Eastern Democracy (POMED) presented a detailed snapshot of Turkey’s media landscape, highlighting implications not only for a free and fair press, but also for the upcoming elections. 

“As Turkey plunges into a fraught campaign period ahead of critical elections… Erdoğan and his government face growing public discontent and increasing awareness among the electorate that the country’s economic and political crises are largely of Erdoğan’s own making. As this pressure on the president grows, so will the government’s desire to tame or silence Turkey’s independent journalists.”

A special investigative report by Reuters, published in August 2022, detailed the government’s infiltration into mainstream media, and the various tools employed to shape news coverage.State advertising revenue is funnelled largely to pro-government publications … Conversely, government-appointed regulators direct penalties for breaching Turkey’s media code almost exclusively to independent or opposition news providers … Criticising the president and alleging official corruption can fall foul of regulators.

This Amnesty International report adds numbers to the mix. The International Press Institute has devoted a page to press freedom violations in Turkey, that includes research articles, reports, current data and more.

In October, the country passed a new disinformation law calling for 4 to 5-year prison terms for, basically, sharing information not sanctioned by authorities. Dubbed the ‘censorship law’, it further tightens the screws on the 2020 social media law that handed government sweeping powers to regulate the tech industry.

In February of this year, the country experienced its worst natural disaster in decades. The president responded with a three-month state of emergency, a consequence of which saw the arrest of journalists and social media users critical of the government’s response. Access to Twitter was also blocked for more than 12 hours.

The impact on journalism in the country has been severe, adding to an already dire situation perpetuated by over two decades of AK-Party rule during which the free press has been a consistent target.

Turkey has jailed more journalists than any other country. According to the Journalists Union of Turkey, 47 Turkish journalists were in prison on World Press Freedom Day; 80 percent of them are accused of ‘membership of an armed organisation’. 

Towards press freedoms 

The government’s aggression towards the media – and any form of dissent – has led to the normalisation of self-censorship, Turkey’s first news ombudsman told audiences at the recent International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. 

“Sourcing became another issue, because although we had some sources continuously feeding us, we couldn’t mention them, which was a huge challenge for us in terms of credibility,” said Yavuz Baydar, the editor of Free Turkish Press, a new independent news/commentary site on Turkey. 

Yet despite all of this, intrepid journalists continue to expose wrongdoings, on the ground and from exile – where their safety is still not guaranteed

And, against the odds, President Erdoğan is facing the first very real threat to his 20-year rule.

The question remains: Will the voters be informed enough to determine a democratic outcome?

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