Government announces new media regulations that could further constrain freedom of expression in Turkey

Journalism not a crime. Screenshot from a YouTube video taken from AFP report from May 3, 2017. The banner in Turkish “Journalism  – not a crime.”

A number of government statements issued last week in Turkey signal a further decline in media freedom.

On July 21, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in an interview that the ruling government was intent on introducing new regulations to combat “a terror of lies” while referring to false news spreading on social media platforms. The same day, the Director of the Presidential Communication Directorate announced plans to regulate foreign funded local media platforms “to ensure the people's access to accurate news.”

The new regulations, expected in the fall, would take aim at a handful of remaining independent online news platforms in Turkey. The move was condemned by the Media Freedom Rapid Response, a project that tracks, monitors and reacts to violations of press and media freedom in European Union (EU) member states and candidate countries, and partner organizations including Article 19, the Association of European Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists and others. According to those organizations that issued a statement on July 23, the new measures are “a clear move to stifle further the free media in Turkey by controlling content.

Misinformation regulations

Answering questions at the end of his visit to the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, the Turkish President explained the government was planning to introduce measures, such as serious criminal sanctions, for disseminating false news through traditional and social media. The measures will be discussed at the upcoming fall session of the parliament and in the context of an already existing social media law that was introduced last year.

“We have conducted a study about international experience about this terror of lies, the kind of steps that are taken, the regulations and sanctions that exist. The situation in Turkey is severe. Because Turkish opposition has turned this terror of lies into its only political tool. This is why in Turkey, the situation is far worse and a big threat to our democracy,” said President Erdoğan in the interview.

Meanwhile, Fahrettin Altun, the head of the Directorate of Communications spoke of a different threat in his statement:

In an environment in which some foreign leaders openly express their intentions and efforts to shape  Turkish politics, we cannot interpret read into any foreign state or institution providing various funds to the media sector independently of such interests and goals. Everyone should rest assured that our democracy will not be a sitting target under the pretext of press freedom or for any other reasons. We will not allow fifth column activities under new disguises.

The planned restrictions come at a time, when one online local news platform, Oda TV published a story about foreign funded media platforms in Turkey, something that none of the news outlets mentioned in the story deny or hide. Oda TV targeted specifically Medyascope, a popular online television and news platform, founded by veteran journalist Ruşen Çakır.

Earlier this month, President Erdoğan also signaled plans to create a new monitoring agency for social media. Other ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials said the new agency will resemble the Radio, and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), a government agency notorious for censoring independent media. On July 17, Mahir Ünal AKP's Deputy Chair likened fighting disinformation on social media to “fighting terrorism”.

“We cannot describe terrorism as a structure based on armed violence. The main aim of terror is to create chaos and remove the idea of order,” said Ünal justifying his statement, based on the EU's experience to combat online disinformation within the member states. The party official did not mention what specific EU measures he was referring to.

A step towards more control

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Kadri Gürsel, member of the executive board of Reporters Without Borders, said the “media ecosystem” in Turkey “is characterized by the devastating consequences of the authoritarian pressure of Erdoğan's rule,” that aims at “taking full or indirect government control of the mainstream media.” The recently announced measures are “a last-ditch attempt to kill independent media outlets that are becoming more influential than ever as the government-controlled media on the other hand becomes obsolete,” said Gürsel.

It is not just control over media that the government is after. The reports of on-going attacks against journalists in Turkey also continue at full speed. In June, AFP photographer Bülent Kılıç was hit in the face, pressed against the ground before getting detained as he covered police intervention during Pride march in Istanbul. On July 20, at least 20 journalists were subject to police violence during the commemoration for the 33 people killed in 2015 in Gaziantep's Suruç province by the Islamic State's suicide bomb attack.

This was reportedly the harshest treatment of journalists by the police to date. Speaking to the  International Press Institute, freelance journalist Emre Orman said, “we are used to being pushed around with police shields, and even hit by non-directly-aimed rubber bullets. But, for the first time since Gezi protests, it felt like we were directly targeted and aimed at with rubber bullets.”

Following the attacks, IPI's Turkey Programme Coordinator Renan Akyavaş said, “The number of cases where Turkish police use excessive force and violence against journalists has significantly increased over the last months. Journalists are responsible to provide the public with objective news and any attempt to prevent them from covering public events is a clear violation of public’s right to access information,” in a statement issued on July 21.

Recently, journalists who have left Turkey have also been increasingly under attack. The most recent case involves exiled Turkish journalist Erk Acarer. According to his own account, he was attacked in the courtyard of his home in Berlin.

Can Dündar, another Turkish journalist living in exile in Germany since 2016 said the attacks were a message from Turkey to Germany:

Dündar was sentenced in absentia to 27 years in jail in December last year. In June, a court in Turkey said it would seek an Interpol Red Notice for his extradition to Turkey.

Following this attack, an Instagram user “jitemkurt” [the account has been terminated since the publication of the post] reportedly shared a hit list of 21 journalists living in Europe. Another Turkish journalist, Celal Başlangıç, whose name was on the alleged list, told Arti TV, that there is another list the  German police mentioned to him during their visit to his home in Cologne this month. “The German police officers who came to my home mentioned a third list consisting of 55 Erdoğan dissidents and said that my name was on that list,” said Başlangıç in an interview.

German Federation of Journalists (DJV) Chair Frank Überall called on the German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas to “make it unmistakably clear to the ambassador [of Turkey in Germany] that these were unacceptable crimes.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Erk Acarer said, “If there is no decisive action, there might be more attacks to come to intimidate and silence the journalists here.”

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