Turkey: Concern over proposals to introduce new regulation of “fake” and “foreign-funded” news
The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) and undersigned partner organisations are concerned about and condemn recent statements by Turkish President Erdoğan and other government officials pertaining to the introduction of new regulation of so-called fake news and “foreign-funded” news in the country. Officials’ targeting several critical and independent media outlets for securing funds abroad is a clear move to stifle further the free media in Turkey by controlling content. We call on the Turkish legislators to ensure that any new measures are fully in line with Turkey’s obligations under domestic and international law that protect free speech and media pluralism.
On 21 July, President Erdoğan in an interview was asked whether there is a law that envisages serious criminal sanctions for disseminating fake news through traditional and social media. In response, he announced that a study will be carried out in Parliament in October, after the summer recess, that will address the issue, building on the social media law that was passed last year. Erdoğan characterised fake news as a threat to Turkish democracy on par with terrorism, in which opposition parties are implicated. The same day, the Presidential Communications Directorate announced that Parliament will take new legal steps against foreign funding of local media outlets “to ensure the people’s access to accurate news”.
These statements were followed by a social media campaign targeting specific independent outlets such as Medyascope for receiving funds from the US-based Chrest Foundation. Medyascope received the 2016 IPI Free Media Pioneer Award for its progressive and critical news coverage in Turkey.
Taken together, these statements create the impression that the Turkish government is preparing to introduce new legal measures that will further undermine media freedom and pluralism in the country.
In relation to so-called fake news, we are concerned that enacting any kind of legal duty of “truth” will in practice amount to the creation of a new tool for government censorship: empowering public officials to decide what is true and what is not entails accepting that the authorities have a right to silence voices with whom they disagree. This prospect is especially worrisome in light of Turkey’s poor track record in respecting freedom of speech and legitimate criticism of the authorities. Accordingly, as we recognise that the spread of disinformation and propaganda is indeed of concern, we urge that any measures to counter it must be based on international freedom of expression law and standards, such as those set out in the 2017 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and “Fake News”, Disinformation and Propaganda.
Furthermore, we note that funding media via (foreign) project funding has become an important source of income for many independent outlets in Turkey, as government pressure has intensified, including through the lack of local funds for media outlets critical of the government and uneven distribution of public advertising, as well as the imposition of fines and advertisement bans by media regulator Radio & TV Higher Council (RTÜK) and public advertising agency BIK. We are concerned that measures to restrict foreign funding, or to paint its recipients as foreign propagandists, are a clear move to demonise the free media and will further increase the pressure on the few remaining independent outlets. Currently, more than 90% of domestic media are directly or indirectly controlled by the government or the ruling AKP.