Erdoğan's top aide says Turkey to identify 'collaborators with enemies', combat black propaganda

Turkey’s Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun said on Saturday that newly formed Department of Strategic Communication and Crisis Management was intended to clearly identify the collaborators of those who carry out black propaganda activities and to fight their collaborators on behalf of the state.

The new body, which has been established within the Turkish Presidency's Directorate of Communications in early September, aims to "combat all kinds of manipulation and disinformation by determining the activities of the 'psychological, propaganda and perception operations' against Turkey," Altun said during a televised interview with broadcaster CNN Turk, according to Diken news website.

"It is a structure established to clearly identify the collaborators of those who carry out black propaganda activities and to fight their collaborators on behalf of the state, on behalf of people."

Critics of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) says the government's control over the country’s mainstream press outlets and repression of critical journalism has led to an atmosphere where any criticism of the government is virtually criminalised.

The crackdown after the failed coup attempt in 2016 hit journalists and civil society activists in Turkey hard, with many prosecuted for supporting terrorism over criticism of government policies in its pursuit of the Gülen movement and repression of the opposition.

"If you adopt this propaganda war, the war of attrition conducted against Turkey, if you welcome this with such different political-ideological motives even though you are in Turkey, operating in Turkey, then, of course, you will be uncomfortable with this step, this activity," Altun said.

In March, Altun wrote on Twitter that Turkey also going after what he called terror groups"who actively wage disinformation campaigns to undermine our public health and safety measures”. 

Meanwhile, Turkey has been accused of spreading misinformation itself in the past, with Twitter suspending over 7,300 accounts in June which were part of a social media network providing support for Turkey’s government and its policies.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s draconian legislation comes into force this week in a bid to censor free speech online.

“This is an unprecedented attempt to control the online information space in Turkey,” the Guardian quoted Professor Yaman Akdeniz, a Turkish cyberlaw expert, as saying.

“With this new law, they are finding a workaround in the censorship process, cutting out the public step in the courts, and issuing orders directly to the platforms themselves,” he said.

The bill stipulates that social media giants like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and others must appoint a legal representative in Turkey to whom courts can turn to make requests to remove content or provide the identity of the users.

“We strongly urge the social media companies not to comply with the new law. It sets a dangerous precedent both for freedom of expression in Turkey and the rest of the world,” Emma Sinclair-Webb said, senior Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Erdoğan's AKP aims to effectively end anonymity on social media platforms, with the social media sites expected to implement systems to confirm the ID of their users.

As per the bill, these platforms must also keep their Turkish user data in Turkey.

Meanwhile, the law will incur sizeable fines if they fail to comply with Turkish government requests. The bill seeks to impose fines of up to €4 million ($4.65 million) on social media companies that fail to swiftly remove hate speech and other illegal content from their platforms.

Under the law, any illegal content would have to be deleted by the social media companies within 24 hours.

“If this works in Turkey, it is almost certain similar rules will be introduced in other repressive countries … just imagine Facebook being held accountable to the authorities in places like Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan,” Sinclair-Webb said.