Turkish press unions held rallies nationwide Tuesday against a new bill that they said will further limit free speech and free information in Turkey – which is already under duress.

The protests on Tuesday took place in major cities in Turkey including Adana, Ankara, Izmir, Kocaeli and Istanbul.

The draft bill was approved by the Justice Committee of the Turkish parliament on June 15 and is expected to pass by a simple majority vote when parliament votes on it in the near future, Al-Monitor reported. 

Critics say the bill is meant to continue to silence opposition voices, and many suspect its timing is designed to curtail free speech and information ahead of elections expected next June.

Even as recently as last month, several journalists were convicted of “insulting the president” and other charges related to negative coverage of the government.

The new bill would tighten restrictions on the press, introducing prison sentences for spreading “disinformation.”

It would also scrutinize social media platforms, bringing news websites under the supervision of the Press Advertising Agency (BİK), which has been “widely criticized for favoring pro-government publications while sanctioning critical newspapers,” according to Expression Interrupted, an organization that reports on freedom of expression in Turkey.

“Social media platforms will have to appoint a representative who is not only a Turkish national but also resides in Turkey. They will also be subject to advertisement bans and bandwidth throttling if they refuse to cooperate with local authorities in information requests,” Expression Interrupted wrote.

Media rights organizations called for the bill’s withdrawal.

Erol Önderoğlu, the Turkish representative for Reporters Without Borders, said it would have “wide-scale negative impacts” on journalists, and that it “will be weaponized, for sure, by a judiciary that is controlled by government actors and will result in the sanctioning of online media representatives and online journalists.” 

 “We believe this law has been drafted to target [media outlets] that do not support the ruling party,” Özge Yurttas, general secretary of the Turkish Press and Printing Workers’ Union, said at the protest in central Istanbul.

“Even before this draft bill becomes law, journalism is being prevented in Turkey,” Gökhan Durmus, chair of the Turkish Journalists Association said. “We believe this bill should be fully withdrawn and a much-needed law on press and disinformation should be prepared by media associations.”

“The government will get their ultimate weapon before the general elections of 2023 with the aim of creating a climate of fear and silencing dissent through the social media platforms,” said Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Istanbul Bilgi University and a founder of the Freedom of Expression Association (IFOD). According to Al-Monitor’s interview with Akdeniz, the draft bill will put pressure not only on journalists and digital content creators, but also on social media platforms, which he expects will see a rise in account information requests from the Turkish state.

The government, on the other hand, claims the bill is necessary to combat online “fake news.”

If the bill passes, it is expected that the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition party in Turkey, will challenge the bill and take it to Turkey’s Constitutional Court. Akdeniz, however, said that the Constitutional Court is  “extremely slow” in handling such cases and has not even ruled yet on previously submitted cases, such as the amendments made to the Internet Law in July 2020. 

“The proposed disinformation [law] is vaguely worded and, regardless of how it is worded, it will be used widely,” Akdeniz said. “I expect hundreds of criminal investigations and prosecutions. In fact, I could be investigated just by speculating that there would be hundreds of criminal investigations.”

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