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Turkey could use a new law, purporting to combat disinformation, to silence dissent

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The Turkish government recently passed a new law to combat disinformation, but advocates for free speech and freedom of the press don't see it that way. While Turkey's president hailed the law as an important tool to prevent abuses, especially on some social media platforms, some critics see it as a move to silence dissenting voices ahead of elections next year. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been pushing for this new law for some time. Back in April, he told a group that promotes youth-oriented projects in Turkey that they should read books and travel instead of spending time on the internet.

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PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) The problems caused by social media lacking a legal infrastructure go far beyond other concerns on this issue. We will implement the necessary regulations as soon as possible.

KENYON: Erdogan warned that social media could, quote, "destroy those who fall into it like a swamp." Academics, policy analysts and journalists have raised a number of concerns with the new law.

IPEK YEZDANI: I think it will be the biggest and worst censorship law in the Turkish Republic's history.

KENYON: That's Ipek Yezdani, who's worked for a number of media outlets both in Turkey and abroad. She says the law will have a chilling effect not just on the media, but on political debate in general. For one thing, she says, the law is so vaguely written that authorities will have wide latitude to decide what qualifies as disinformation.

YEZDANI: So someone can easily interpret a criticism towards government as disinformation according to this law. So I think the consequences of this law will be really bad, both for journalists and Turkish democracy and also for Turkish citizens.

KENYON: Oliver Money-Kyrle, head of European advocacy at the International Press Institute, says in recent years, and certainly since the failed coup attempt against Erdogan six years ago, Turkey has effectively mobilized the power of government to quell voices that don't follow the ruling party line.

OLIVER MONEY-KYRLE: We see now hundreds and hundreds of journalists have been prosecuted. There are tens of journalists that are in jail. And there are thousands of journalists who self-censorship every day out of fear of being prosecuted for their work.

KENYON: In places like the European Union, laws governing online activity have attempted to level the playing field, promote competition and protect users' rights. But Turkey's approach is different. Analyst Sinan Ulgen, director of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul, says while other countries put the onus on digital platforms to police disinformation, Turkey places that burden on individuals and backs it up with the threat of jail time for violators.

SINAN ULGEN: In Turkey, the main difference is that disinformation is being criminalized. So the responsibility is on the citizen and not the platform.

KENYON: Another big difference, he says, is that Turkey's law allows the courts to decide what is and what isn't disinformation. Ulgen says the bottom line is that everyone in Turkey, from officials to journalists to private citizens, are potential targets of this law.

ULGEN: This legislation can potentially target everybody if they tweet, if they retweet, if they post something on Facebook, on Instagram, on whatever platform that they're using - to the extent that it can be construed as disinformation, they can be targeted.

KENYON: As for the digital platforms themselves, Ulgen says they may come to view the Turkish restrictions as too onerous and simply stop providing services in Turkey. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.