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Turkey: Journalists bullied, censored by government over earthquake coverage

The post-quake experience of Turkey’s media offers clues as to what forms of censorship Ankara could employ in the upcoming election season.
Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) MP Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu holds a photograph depicting censorship while attending a session on a government-sponsored bill that criminalizes "disinformation" at the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TBMM) on October 13, 2022, in Ankara. (Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The earthquake disaster in southeastern Turkey has brought more pressure on the country’s already muted media as the government seeks to contain popular anger over its response to the tragedy, which hit just months before crucial elections.

With most of Turkey’s media long under government control, independent media outlets have faced various forms of pressure since the Feb. 6 quakes — from the detention and bullying of their reporters on the ground to financial penalties and broadcasting bans. Despite their limited resources, the impact of independent media appears to scare the government. The post-quake experience offers a clue as to what means of censorship Ankara might employ in the run-up to the elections, due in June at the latest.

In addition to the emergency rule declared in the 11 affected provinces, a recently introduced law stipulating jail sentences for spreading “fake news” has been hanging over the head of the media as the sword of Damocles. In his first address to the nation after the quakes, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that those who attempt to disseminate “fake news and distortions” were being “closely” monitored. “We’ll open [the notes] that we are now keeping when the time comes,” he said.

The main criticism that Ankara faced after the quakes was that a slow, disorganized and inadequate deployment of first responders and equipment to the disaster zone in the first two days prevented the rescue of more people trapped under the rubble. The sluggish distribution of tents further infuriated quake victims battling wintry conditions. Also, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) — in power for more than two decades — has come under fire for poor enforcement of building codes, allowing construction booms in quake-prone areas and passing a law in 2018 that legalized hundreds of thousands of illegal or substandard structures in return for a fee.

The disaster claimed the lives of 32 journalists in the affected regions, while those coming in to report had to contend with various obstructions. At least four journalists were detained for reasons such as filming without having government-issued press cards or interviewing people critical of the government’s response before being released later.

A number of journalists have reported mistreatment and obstructions by the police, including one who had some of his equipment destroyed and another who was kicked to the ground. The latter was also threatened by an axe-wielding government supporter.

Prosecutors have launched probes into at least four journalists for quake-related reports or commentaries, among them a reporter who broke the story of a man accused of looting dying in police custody allegedly due to torture.

The government-controlled media, meanwhile, have been kept in check on how to report the tragedy. They have adopted the term “the disaster of the century,” coined by Ankara to smokescreen its responsibilities and imbue the public with the idea that the quakes would have overwhelmed any government. People complaining about the shortage of search-and-rescue teams or relief assistance have been largely absent from their coverage. 

About two weeks after the quakes, pro-government TV channels were reportedly instructed to go back to “routine” footing, barring entertainment shows, and focus on positive aspects such as the stories of people pulled alive from the rubble. 

An editor from one of those media outlets, who requested anonymity, confirmed the instructions. “Of course, such instructions do not come in a written form. The presidency’s communication directorate and AKP officials in charge of the media are constantly in touch with channel managers. Everyone was already toeing the line,” the editor told Al-Monitor.

According to the independent news site Diken, news channels have been instructed to prevent angry victims from interfering in live broadcasts to criticize the authorities or voice complaints, avoid wide-angle shooting showing large clusters of pancaked buildings and concentrate on “optimistic” news, relief efforts and government plans for further support for the victims.

Reporters heeding the instructions have faced awkward moments in trying to stop quake victims from making critical remarks on air. Some have had to pull their microphones away or abruptly end live broadcasts. One journalist was caught on air pushing away a man who was heard shouting, “I want to speak! Six days on, we are still without a tent.” Another, who was visiting a family sheltered in a tent, earned himself lampoon on social media for praising how spacious and functional the tent was, while many people across the disaster zone were crying out for tents.

“We have been gagged,” a reporter working on the ground told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. He said he saw colleagues from pro-government media crying in desperation for being unable to report the realities on the ground.

Mehmet Akif Ersoy, a senior journalist for the Haberturk news channel who is known to be close to government circles, came under “friendly fire” for reporting the delay in rescue efforts in Hatay, the province that suffered the worst destruction. “I reported what I saw, heeding the voice of my conscience,” he told Al-Monitor. “I’m neither with those who say ‘the state was absent’ nor those who say ‘the state did its best.’ I don’t care about their reactions.”

Meanwhile, the few TV channels that remain outside the tight grip of the government have been showered with penalties by the broadcasting watchdog. Halk TV was fined the equivalent of 5% of its monthly advertising revenues for airing critical comments by an opposition lawmaker, coupled with a ban on the next five editions of the program in question. The station was fined separately for another program in which the government’s response to the quakes was criticized. The Tele1 and Fox TV channels were slapped with similar financial penalties and program bans. 

Also, the authorities blocked access to Eksi Sozluk, a popular social media platform, allegedly over the posts of an anonymous military officer who described scenes of chaos and desperation in the first several days after the quakes.

“The government’s efforts to pressure and steer [the media] were faster than the search-and-rescue efforts,” Faruk Bildirici, media ombudsman at the independent news portal T24, told Al-Monitor. “The government’s spokespeople and media have been trying to fend off any criticism by branding it as ‘disinformation’ or ‘lie.’ … More than 44,000 are dead, but Erdogan is not responsible for anything and has made no mistake!”

Bildirici hailed the independent media for doing its job despite all the obstructions and pressure. “They managed to show the public that … centralizing the administration and tying all decision-making to the orders of one person (Erdogan) is the real disaster. Thanks to them, the efforts to conceal the truth have failed,” he said.

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