A court ordered the arrest of a journalist in southeast Turkey for allegedly spreading “disinformation”, his lawyer said on Thursday, marking the first pre-trial detention under a new law that critics say poses a threat to free speech.
The arrest comes two months after parliament passed the legislation that President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party said would protect the public. Critics say the law could be abused by authorities in order to stifle dissent.
Sinan Aygul, a journalist in Kurdish-majority Bitlis province, was detained early on Wednesday after he wrote on Twitter that a 14-year-old girl had allegedly been sexually abused by men including police officers and soldiers. He later retracted the story.
In a series of tweets, Aygul said the local governor told him the story untrue after he had posted about the alleged incident.
Aygul, who is the chairman of the Bitlis Journalists Association, apologised for publishing the story without confirming it with authorities.
Later on Wednesday, a local court ordered the arrest of Aygul pending trial, ruling his actions could lead to fear and panic among the public and could disturb peace in the country given the size of his audience, a court document showed.
In his statement to court, Aygul said he had corrected his mistake after speaking with authorities, deleted the initial tweet and had not intended to commit a crime.
Aygul’s lawyer Diyar Orak said the detention was unlawful.
“The implementation of the legislation…, which was used for the first time as far as we know, being interpreted in this way by the judiciary leaves us concerned that similar investigations and arrests will ramp up in the future,” he told Reuters.
The law carries a jail sentence of up to three years for anyone who spreads false or misleading information. Erdogan’s AK Party and its nationalist MHP allies say it aims to combat disinformation.
The new law raised concerns of a further crackdown on media after a Reuters investigation showed how pressure from authorities and self-censorship has transformed mainstream Turkish media.
(This story has been corrected to fix spelling of lawyer’s last name in paragraph 8)