On October 13, 2022, Turkey’s unicameral legislature, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, adopted a law making it an offense to “overtly disseminate false information” under certain conditions. The law amends the Turkish Penal Code to add a new Article 217/A that provides for the offense. The amendments entered into force with the law’s publication in the Official Gazette on October 18, 2022.
According to the translation provided by the Turkish government to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, the text of the statute reads as follows:
(1) Any person who overtly disseminates false information contrary to the facts about the internal and external security, public order, and public health, with the motive exclusively to create distress, fear, and panic among public and in a manner conducive to disturb public peace, shall be sentenced to imprisonment from one to three years.
(2) If the offence is committed by concealing the true identity of the perpetrator or as part of the activities of an organized group, the penalty outlined in the preceding paragraph shall be increased by one-half.
The statute was criticized by many observers. The Venice Commission, which reviewed the draft law’s conformity with the right to freedom of expression as enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Turkey is party, issued an urgent opinion on the draft law on October 7, 2022, raising concerns about the law. The commission, while acknowledging that tackling disinformation was a legitimate social need, particularly criticized the law’s use of terms such as “overtly disseminating” or “disturbance of public peace” as being too broad or vague, and expressed concern that the imposition of a prison sentence for the offense appeared to be a disproportionate measure that, together with the sanction enhancement for anonymous commission of the offense, would create a chilling effect and induce self-censorship. The commission also pointed out that in the original Turkish version, the subtitle of the article — unlike the term used in the body of the article — translated to “dissemination of misleading information” rather than “false information” which made the scope of the law unclear. The commission recommended that the government not enact the law. The Media Freedom Representative of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) also expressed concerns that “the vague definitions and broad scope of the newly proposed legislation can lead to arbitrary and politically motivated actions at the expense of free speech and media pluralism.”
The statute was criticized on the same or similar grounds by many Turkish commentators, including representatives of opposition parties; the Turkish Society of Criminal Law; Professor Yaman Akdeniz, a prominent information technology law scholar; and Rıza Türmen, an ex-judge of the European Court of Human Rights — all expressing serious concerns about the law’s potential chilling effect on journalistic practice and freedom of expression on the internet, especially on the eve of the 2023 general elections.
The government issued public statements defending the law. The deputy parliamentary group leader of the ruling party, the AKP, argued that the law was respectful of freedom of expression and targeted only coordinated disinformation campaigns against public order and peace, and that the scope was sufficiently circumscribed so that it would not have censorious effect. The chairman of the parliamentary commission on digital media, who is a member of the AKP, stated that the law was drafted in consultation with all relevant stakeholders and that its scope was not censorious.
The main opposition party, the CHP, filed a constitutional challenge before the Constitutional Court, claiming that the law violates constitutional rights and requesting its invalidation.
Kayahan Cantekin, Law Library of Congress
November 30, 2022
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