How Government Attacks on the Press Exacerbated the Devastation of the Earthquakes in Turkey

Photo Credit: European Union, 2023 (photographer: Lisa Hastert), CC BY-ND 2.0

By Veysel Ok

Two earthquakes struck Turkey and Syria on February 6, devastating the lives of nearly 26 million people. According to official data, over 46,000 people have died as a result of the earthquakes and entire cities were wiped off the map. The World Health Organization (WHO) called the quakes the “worst natural disaster in the WHO European Region for a century.”

Amid a disaster of such magnitude and scale, Turkey’s government prioritized censoring journalists and social media communications over disaster relief efforts, including the search and rescue of survivors. The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), the Information Technologies Council (BTK), and Criminal Peace Judgeships blocked and fined independent TV stations, suspended Twitter, and brought lawsuits against journalists providing critical coverage of the government response.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes, independent journalists and representatives of media outlets arrived on the scene before state relief agencies at many affected locations. At the same time, pro-government media outlets reported that state agencies had disaster relief under control. In stark contrast, independent journalists, media outlets, and first-hand accounts from hundreds of survivors said that little to no assistance reached some impacted regions for the first 72 hours after the quakes—the most critical period for those alive under the rubble.

Just days after the earthquake, the Presidency of Turkey, through the Directorate of Communications, released a video claiming that journalists and social platforms were spreading disinformation. Government officials demanded that journalists reporting on the aftermath of the earthquakes show press cards issued by the directorate—often issued to reward pro-government coverage and denied to journalists working in opposition media—and attempted to prevent those who didn’t carry them from reporting.

The heads of state agencies, including the president himself, tried to conceal the fact that state institutions failed at providing immediate rescue and help efforts.

Social Media Censorship

The suspension of Twitter for eight hours on February 8, two days after the earthquakes, was shocking and exasperating. Currently, more than 90 percent of mainstream news media in Turkey are controlled directly by the government or by businesses allied with the government. As a result, residents often get independent news about developments in the country from social media platforms or independent internet news portals.

Some of the first reports about the earthquakes from the region were posted on Twitter just moments after they happened. Many people trapped under the rubble posted on Twitter from their cell phones while still alive, sharing their addresses and making their screams for help heard. Others organized civilian search and rescue efforts and coordinated assistance to the region via social media. Social media platforms were where citizens turned to voice their outrage about the immense negligence of the government and their indignation about the corruption that had weakened disaster response agencies.

Instead of focusing on disaster response and attempting to minimize the loss of lives on the ground, the government kept its attention on social media. Aside from blocking Twitter, Turkish police arrested and detained people for social media posts about the earthquakes. Turkish officials held a meeting with Twitter where they demanded the company fight “disinformation” and asked them to block “fake” accounts. It is unclear whether the company agreed to make concessions, though Twitter access was eventually reinstated. However, eight critical hours that could have been used for saving individuals trapped under the rubble were squandered.

Legal Persecution of Journalists

Pressure on the media wasn’t limited to shutting down Twitter or blocking journalist accounts on social media. Tens of journalists were targets of physical attacks by security forces and many journalists reporting on the ground were detained. The government also brought charges against journalists based on their factual reporting.

One striking example is that of local journalists Ali İmat and İbrahim İmat, two brothers from the earthquake-stricken province Osmaniye, who are themselves earthquake survivors. They were arrested for reporting on hundreds of tents sent to the region that were locked up in a storage space instead of distributed to survivors. The two journalists were arrested on charges of “publicly spreading misleading information,” under the “disinformation law” that was passed in October 2022 by the government, which is characterized by the opposition as a censorship law. These journalists are now behind bars strictly for reporting on the needs of the people in their city.

In another case, an investigation was launched against journalist Mir Ali Koçer on charges of “publicly spreading misleading information” for his coverage of survivors’ experiences and search-and-rescue efforts, which included remarks that he always had to wear a face mask in Kahramanmaraş because of the overpowering smell caused by the authorities’ failure to remove the bodies of the dead under the rubble.

Financial Attacks on Independent TV Outlets

Three non-government-aligned news stations in Turkey were fined for their earthquake journalism. Halk TV, Tele1, and Fox TV were the most-watched news stations by viewers in Turkey after the earthquake. As a result of their reporting on the disaster, including on government ineptitude and corruption, all three were given hefty monetary fines by the country’s broadcasting watchdog, RTÜK. Halk TV and Tele1 were fined 5 percent of their January revenues, while Fox TV was fined 3 percent of theirs. Additionally, their programs were blocked five times by the government. The real purpose of fining these television stations—which cannot receive any advertising from large companies or public agencies—is obvious: the government doesn’t want citizens to see what is really taking place on the ground.

In short, as Turkish citizens fought to stay alive amid the devastation wrought by natural disaster, they also faced an artificially-induced catastrophe produced by government censorship and attacks on independent media. This earthquake has shown once again that journalism is of prime importance not only to ensure the right to expression, but also the right to life. Yet again we see that for authoritarian regimes, attempting to prevent and stop independent media is more important than saving lives.

Veysel Ok is a media freedom lawyer based in Istanbul, Turkey. He is a co-founder and current co-director of the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), which provides legal assistance to journalists and other victims of violations of the right to free speech. He also won the prestigious Thomas Dehler Award in 2019.

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