June 9, 2022

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A “disinformation law” that, if passed, would impose up to three-year jail sentences for the spread of “fake news” or “disinformation,” has been sitting in Turkish parliament for years.

While the bill itself makes no attempt to define fake news or false information, independent journalists in the country speculate the so-called “disinformation” law may be a euphemism. In fact, the law could be a way of securing authoritarian control in the country by giving outsized power to censor and restrict information flow to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government. Fact-checkers at Teyit, one of two Turkish verified signatories to the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles, compared the legislation to the laws of regimes that lack press freedoms, like Burkina Faso, Russia, Cambodia and Myanmar.

“All examples so far show that such restrictive laws on misinformation limit freedom of expression and are used for censorship,” reads a letter from Teyit sent to a group of signatories to the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles. “These countries, where those who spread ‘fake news’ are imprisoned, are on the lower spectrum of both the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press and media literacy rankings show that they are not resistant to false information.”

Can Semercioğlu, head of communications at Teyit, said, “If this bill becomes a law, people who spread false information may face imprisonment of one to three years. Other administrative measures include sanctions such as fines, bans on advertising, and bandwidth throttling for social media platforms.”

Although most people in Turkey have at least heard of the bill, many are not yet aware of its details, Semercioğlu said. Further, public opinion in Turkey is already divided on media at large due to media ownership issues in the country.

“Despite the media market being liberalized on paper, due to political, economic and regulatory factors, it remains highly concentrated, with no real ownership controls in place,” writes Hüseyin Kemal Bayazit in “Media Ownership and Concentration in Turkey,” a 2016 book summarizing the matter. “Turkish media markets are dominated by a handful of vertically integrated industrial conglomerates.”

Semercioğlu said prominent journalists, journalism advocates, unions and legal experts have argued the bill has the potential to “narrow freedom of speech and increase censorship,” though he stipulated that the viewpoints of both advocates and detractors of the bill are represented on Turkish social media.

“The bill offers an ambiguous definition of disinformation, ‘fake news,’ etc. This may cause arbitrary decisions and it may easily become an instrument of censorship,” Semercioğlu said. “If this bill passes in the parliament, it will heavily undermine the solution-oriented processes that fact-checkers, media organizations and academics have proposed for a long time.”

Semercioğlu also said that the more restrictions a country places on freedom of expression, the more vulnerable its populace becomes to false information.

“Misinformation is a significant issue; however, dozens of examples of countries like Russia, China, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Tanzania, Taiwan, Thailand, Kenya, Myanmar, Singapore and Malaysia show us that the solution is not imprisonment,” he said. Semercioğlu pointed to lower press freedom and media literacy rankings in the countries, despite their apparent legal opposition to “false information.”

In March, Russia passed a similar “fake news” law cracking down on independent news outlets reporting on the Russia-Ukraine war. The legislation punishes, through fines and 15-year prison sentences, those who spread information Russian authorities deem to be false. The Philippine government has also attempted to pass similar “anti-fake news” measures, though Filipino fact-checkers have opposed the moves.

“The No. 1 source of disinformation here is the government,” said Ellen Tordesillas, head of VERA Files, a Philippine-based independent fact-checking outlet. “Legislators should first review existing laws and see if they are adequate to check on the failings and abuses of media and falsehoods being spread in social media. We already have our laws on libel, cybercrime law and anti-terror.”

However, unlike in Turkey, fact-checkers in the Philippines said that they were invited to legislative hearings to offer input regarding the laws.

“We fact-checkers frequently repeat that we need a holistic approach to tackle the misinformation problem: empowering all the stakeholders with critical digital literacy skills,” Semercioğlu said. “These skills aim to access the facts firsthand and prevent the spread of misinformation rather than punish those who spread it.”

The Turkish directorate of communications did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the International Fact-Checking Network.

“Even though fact-checkers have lots of information and experience in misinformation and disinformation problems, we have never been a part of the process. We haven’t been asked any questions; no information has been requested,” Semercioğlu said.

Interesting fact-checks


  • Maldita.es: Las consecuencias reales de la desinformación: víctimas de los bulos que relacionan al colectivo trans con el tiroteo de Texas (Spanish)
    • An interesting look at how, before the identity of the Uvalde shooter was widely known, online claims on 4chan and 9gag accused various transgender people of being the shooter.
  • EFE Verifica: La tasa de homicidios en colombia en 2021 no fue la menor en 20 años como afirma duque (Spanish)
    • Just classic political fact-checking: Colombian President Iván Duque claimed in an interview with BBC “HARDtalk” that the homicide rate in Colombia was its lowest in over 20 years. Duque also claimed that deforestation decreased for the first time in two decades. Neither is true, EFE Verifica found.
  • AFP Fact Check: Video of an Andean condor falsely shared as ‘Garuda bird sighting in Indonesia’ (English)
    • “It turns out that the Garuda bird is not mere myth or folktale,” the caption of a widely-circulated video depicting an Andean condor reads. The Garuda bird is a type of bird from Hindu mythology that contains both human and bird-like features. AFP FactCheck found that, for now, the Garuda bird is still just “mere myth.”
  • Reuters: Fact Check-No evidence Jen Psaki made $27 million in two years as White House Press Secretary (English)
    • Hastily-edited photos on Facebook and Twitter claim Jen Psaki made $27 million during her time as White House press secretary. “My White House salary = 180k. I will have to circle back with you on how in just two years I’ve made $27 million,” one post reads. Psaki told Reuters that her net worth wasn’t $27 million. Reuters found no independent evidence for the claim.
  • Ghana Fact: FACT-CHECK: Ghana has NOT recorded a case of Monkeypox (English)
    • Though “intense online speculation” has suggested that a case of monkeypox was observed in Ahanta West, Ghana Health Service told Ghana Fact that Ghana has not recorded a single instance of the virus. “Ghana Health Service through its surveillance system has not recorded any confirmed case of monkeypox in the country,” GHS wrote.
  • Polígrafo: Não há provas de que estão a ser vendidas velas de Zelensky “retratado enquanto um santo” em Fátima (Portuguese) 
    • The claim is that holy candles with the face of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, instead of Jesus, are being sold in Fátima, Portugal. “Light a candle for Ukraine!” A picture of the candles reads. The Sanctuary of Fátima, the alleged source of the candles, assured Polígrafo that the candles are not, and never were, for sale in official stores.
  • Polígrafo: Autarca de Penafiel cancelou “Baile dos Pretos”, tradição de “blackface”, e culpou “puritanismos”? É verdade (Portuguese)
    • This fact check, unfortunately, turned out to be true. “This year we don’t have the Black Ball; there are puritanisms there. It’s a shame because it’s an old tradition, but political correctness forces us to do these things,” said the mayor of Penafiel. The Black Ball in question was a dance in which white Portuguese participants painted their faces all black and sang racist lyrics. Check out the photo on Polígrafo’s website. It’s something else.
  • AFP Fact Check: Article misinterprets satellite data to claim sea ice at 30-year high | Fact Check (English)
    • “Inconvenient truth for globalists: Arctic ice at 30-year high”; “Data contradict connection with rising levels of CO2,” the website WorldNetDaily reads, implying that climate change is not in fact causing a decrease in the levels of sea ice. Experts explained that the trend in shrinking ice levels is “well documented.” A meteorological scientist from Norway told AFP that WND gives a false impression of the data “by cherry-picking those two years … gives a wrong interpretation of the OSI SAF sea-ice data.”
  • First Check: Fact-check: Monkeypox is not a skin disease (English)
    • Continuing with the broad trends of misinformation in India, claims of “miracle cures” for monkeypox are beginning to circulate. A health care practitioner in Pakistan claims to be able to cure the disease with Merc Sol and Rhus-tox. As First Check points out, there are currently no proven treatments for monkeypox.
  • Correctiv: MDR Investigativ“ korrigiert Facebook-Kommentar über Renten für ukrainische Geflüchtete (German)
    • German public broadcaster MDR Investigativ incorrectly suggested that any Ukrainian in Germany would immediately be able to apply for pensions after a certain age. In fact, Ukrainians in Germany have to pay taxes for five years before qualifying for a pension. 
  • StopFake: Fake: Ukraine Distributed Counterfeit Money Infected with Tuberculosis in Occupied Donbas (English)
    • As tuberculosis rages in occupied territories in Ukraine, the Russian Defense Ministry has resuscitated an old claim that Ukraine was distributing money infected by a particular strain of drug-resistant tuberculosis. “Leaflets in the form of counterfeit banknotes, were infected with tuberculosis and distributed among minors in the settlement of Stepove,” said Igor Kirillov, chief of radiation, chemical and biological defense forces of the Russian Armed Forces. StopFake points out this claim was previously debunked in 2020.

Quick hits


From the news:

  • Help Wanted: State Misinformation Sheriff: Several states are in the market for “misinformation sheriffs” and are willing to pay a steep salary to qualified applicants. The job description includes browsing online forums as well as identifying and dispelling false claims before they take hold. (New York Times, Cecilia Kang)
  • Food prices file: What is happening in the global food market? Food prices have been rising everywhere for a long time. But in Turkey, the current situation is far worse. A comprehensive examination of the problem from International Fact-Checking Network signatory Teyit. (Teyit, Ezgi Toprak)

From/for the community:

  • Newtral has been selected by the London School of Economics to do artificial intelligence research to improve fact-checking processes, in collaboration with ABC Australia. Newtral was the only Spanish media company chosen among 10 teams of journalists and engineers selected from 16 countries.
  • Meta announced Mongolian Fact-Checking Center has become a local partner of the third-party fact-checking program in Mongolia as part of its ongoing integrity efforts to reduce the spread of misinformation and improve the quality of the news people find online. MFCC was the first Mongolian signatory to IFCN’s code of principles. 
  • Lupa, a Brazilian fact-checking outlet, just launched its brand new website: lupa.news. It “reflects the core of Lupa, based on two pillars: Journalism and Media Literacy. It’s also very important to notice that we have a third section on it, dedicated to Institutional contents, giving much more transparency to Lupa.”

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Seth Smalley is a reporter at Poynter and the IFCN. Get in touch at seth@poynter.org or on Twitter @sethsalex.
Seth Smalley

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