Turkey joins the ranks of countries considering a foreign agent law

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

Turkey, following in the footsteps of Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Hungary, and Georgia to name a few, is considering adopting its own version of the controversial foreign agent law. Expected to be submitted to the Grand National Assembly — Turkey's parliament — before the end of the legislative year on July 1, 2024, the package includes a legislative amendment that would introduce criminal penalties for what it calls “foreign influence agents” by expanding the definitions of “espionage” and “spying.” Critics and rights watchdogs say the proposal targets free expression and is simply another legal excuse for the government to target civil society and the public.

The devil is in the details

On May 4, Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MİT) released a video titled “What is espionage?” The video breaks down the modern nature of espionage and reminds its viewers that aiding foreign intelligence operatives, whether willingly or unwillingly, constitutes a crime. Days later, the public learned that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was submitting a new judicial reform package for parliamentary.

The proposed amendment suggests adding the term “agent of influence” to the 9th Judicial Package. The latter is not an unfamiliar term among party officials who have long resorted to labeling critics as “foreign influence agents,” according to Gurkan Ozturan, Media Freedom Monitoring officer at the ECPMF. As such, he noted in a thread on X that the amendment “seems like yet another attempt to target free expression and add to the list of other repressive laws.”

Other international watchdogs agree. According to a statement issued by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), “the proposed legislation would enable the Erdogan government to not only continue undermining free speech and press freedom within Türkiye but also beyond its borders as the amendment also covers Turkish citizens, institutions and organizations located in a foreign country.”

The draft article introduces prison terms including lifetime imprisonment.

Critics say the move would further stifle freedom of speech in a country that already ranks poorly on global indexes on freedoms. At the time of writing this piece, some twenty journalists are on trial facing up to 15 years behind bars over terrorism charges, leveled against them, on the alleged grounds they were contributing to the foreign media.

In an interview with DW Turkish, journalist Ceren Bayar, said the amendments won't only concern journalists but everyone else in the country. “Whoever criticizes the authorities will be accused of being a spy or being connected to foreign powers,” explained Bayar, adding, “Each of us, can be labeled as an agent of influence at any moment.”

In one example Bayar explains, that if a local civic group publishes a report that is critical of the government or country, the group can be accused of being a foreign agent if they are funded by a foreign donor.

Lawyer Kerem Altiparmak explained what the new changes imply in an interview with DW Turkish. Essentially a person can be accused of being under foreign influence if something they have said online about freedoms, democracy, or human rights in Turkey was followed by a criticism or international condemnation.

An arsenal of restrictive measures

In October 2022, Turkey's lawmakers adopted a law on disinformation purportedly meant to combat fake news and disinformation which, since then, has been used to squash dissent and criticism. The bill came with a set of restrictions including mandatory content removal, violations of user privacy, further platform regulation measures, and more — though one of the most worrying articles is Article 29, which says “anyone publicly distributing false information on Turkey’s domestic and external security, public order and welfare could face between one and three years in jail for instigating concern, fear and panic in society, faces imprisonment from one and up to three years.” The bill was scrutinized for its opaque legal definitions, and for weaponizing unclear terms such as disinformation, fake news, baseless information, distorted disinformation, security, public order, and public peace.

Just as the proposed clause on the agent of influence, the disinformation bill's scope too concerned public at large — from social media users to scientists and independent economists.

The new amendment to the Penal Code is also vague in wording. “It is even more vague than anticipated. Anything deemed “against the state and state interests” may be criminalized as an act foreign agent. Acts falling under the scope of the law are also left undefined; referred to as “various acts”,” wrote journalist and political scientist Sezin Oney on X.

Other criminal penalties in place include Article 299 of the Penal Code, which states that any person who insults the president can face up to four years behind bars. Thus far, studentsartistsjournalistslawyers, and average citizens, have been prosecuted or faced trial.

In August 2022, the Directorate of Communication established a “Center for Combating Disinformation.” Similar to the vague terminology referred to in the October 2022 bill, there was little transparency around the center's purpose and procedures. In a statement issued by the International Press Institute at the time, the international organization expressed concern and questioned the center's mandate as a government body to “combat ‘disinformation.'”

There are also amendments to the Press Code of Ethics introduced by the Press Advertising Agency (BİK) in July 2022, a social media bill, and other online restrictions in place.

But for Turkey's Minister of Justice, Yilmaz Tunc, existing laws and regulations are insufficient. Speaking about the package on May 8, Tunc said, these were “necessary regulations” in light of “requests from judges, prosecutors, and citizens,” the ministry has received in the past.

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