'Disinformation law' constitutes interference with freedom of expression, Europe watchdog says

Council of Europe's Venice Commission said in a 23-page assessment that Turkey's proposed "disinformation" bill could further harm journalism and lead to "arbitrary restrictions of freedom of expression."

Reuters - Duvar English

Turkey's proposed "disinformation" bill threatens free speech and could further harm journalism ahead of next year's elections, a European rights watchdog's legal body said, calling for Turkey's parliament to reject it.

The Venice Commission, which advises the Council of Europe, said prison sentences and other fallout from the draft legislation would be disproportionate to its aims and could lead to "arbitrary restrictions of freedom of expression."

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government says the legislation would address misinformation in the press and on social media. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and allies have a majority in parliament and are expected to adopt it as soon as this week.

Critics, including opposition parties and press groups, are primarily concerned over an article saying those who spread false information about Turkey's security to create fear and disturb public order would face one to three years in prison.

"The Commission is particularly concerned with the potential consequences of such provision, namely, the chilling effect and increased self-censorship, not least in view of the upcoming elections in June 2023," it said

It said the bill "constitutes an interference with the freedom of expression" protected by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). It asked lawmakers to clarify terms in the bill and to reject the draft amendment, which was debated last week.

There are alternative non-criminal ways to counter misinformation and disinformation in a democratic society, the Venice Commission said in a 23-page assessment.

The bill would continue a decades-long crackdown on free speech and the media under Erdoğan, who faces tight presidential and parliamentary elections next year.

A Reuters investigation recently showed how the mainstream media has become a tight chain of command of government-approved headlines.

Parliament is set to resume debate over the legislation on Tuesday after it passed the first 15 articles last week.

Turkey faces suspension from the Council of Europe over an ECHR judgment that it ignored an earlier 2019 ruling calling for the release from prison of philanthropist Osman Kavala.

The ruling coalition of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) on May 26 submitted to parliament the long-awaited bill that criminalizes so-called “disinformation” spread online. One of the most controversial articles of the bill is Article 29 which talks about the “struggle against disinformation."

“If a person spreads false information with regards to the country's domestic and external security, public order and general health in a way that that is suitable to disrupt the public peace, with the purpose of creating concern, fear or panic among the people, they will be sentenced to between one and three years,” the relevant article reads.

If the draft law passes the parliament, online news outlets will be required to remove “false” content, and the government may block access to their websites more easily.