We are all now debating the national significance of a decision by a court in a small town that under normal circumstances only deals with petty crimes.
On Saturday, in the town of Reyhanli in Hatay province, two bomb-laden vehicles blew up, killing dozens of people, wounding hundreds and damaging many buildings and vehicles. Turkey was shaken to its core by scenes more often seen in other parts of the Middle East.
A court in the small town decided on a “reporting ban,” applicable nationwide, about this act of terror.
The Reyhanli Criminal Court of Peace ruling says, “It has been decided to ban all forms of audio, visual and print reporting, and their broadcast, of the investigation into the May 11, 2013, explosion in the town of Reyhanli that killed and wounded many people ... and anything related to the context of the incident ... [and] anything to do with anything about those killed and wounded in the incident.”
The decision was conveyed to all media organs in Turkey by the Radio and Television Supreme Council. The naked truth, concealed by legal language, is a media clampdown using the imposition of a comprehensive censorship mechanism via court decision.
The court based its incredibly comprehensive censorship decision on legal justifications used by the public prosecutor’s office when it asked for a ban on reporting, saying, “Reporting in print and visual media any information and visuals related to the investigation will impair the confidentiality of the investigation and endanger its proper progress.”
This means that all news and visuals about one of the biggest terror attacks Turkey has witnessed are banned because that may impair the “confidentiality’’ of the investigation. If one looks at the decision carefully, in the context of the political-legal framework in which it was taken, some interesting details emerge.
The prohibition on publishing documents and other information related to the prosecutor’s investigation is being used as a cover to prevent the public from being informed of some truths that those in power would rather keep under wraps. For example, the latest similar “confidentiality” decision was about the killing of 35 Kurdish villagers by the Turkish air force, which thought they were terrorists. This effectively prevented anyone, including the relatives of the victims, from finding out anything about the investigation.
But the ban on reporting about the Reyhanli bombing goes far beyond any “confidentiality of investigation” we have ever witnessed in Turkey and signals an extraordinary censorship effort. In this case, the court is banning not only reporting on the prosecutor’s investigation, but also on anything to do with the incident.
It doesn’t seem likely for a prosecutor in a small town to demand such a comprehensive censorship decision from the legal system. It is not hard to imagine that some sort of diplomacy transpired behind closed doors, and that the prosecutor was instructed by the Justice Ministry to file such a demand.
In fact, it is obvious that the AKP government is extremely sensitive not only about this explosion but about anything to do with the crisis in Syria and Turkey’s role in it; hence the effort to wrap a shroud of secrecy around it.
Sezin Oney of the daily Taraf offers interesting insights into other dimensions of this “sensitivity” in a May 13 article:
“The issue of transparency noted at Reyhanli today has been going on for months in regard to the Syrian refugees. According to information from the ministry responsible for the operation of about 20 camps, there are about 192,000 Syrians in those camps. Directive No. 62, which involves the lives of so many people, was prepared by the Interior Ministry a year after the flow of refugees began being kept totally secret from the public. To study this directive, dated March 30, 2012, Amnesty International officially applied to see it in accordance with freedom of information law, while members of the parliament filed similar requests with the National Assembly. But the directive was not shown to anyone on secrecy grounds. This attitude creates suspicions about the camps.’’
It is not only issues related to Syrian refugees that cannot be debated in detail in public, but also Turkey’s role in developments in Syria. There is no court decision about such debates, but it is easy to detect the guarded language preferred by newspapers and television.
The government, worried about having to answer questions on Turkey’s Syria policy in the aftermath of the terror attack, has opted to totally obstruct any such debate through a court decision obtained by manipulating the laws to the extreme.
Orhan Kemal Cengiz is a human rights lawyer, columnist and former president of the Human Rights Agenda Association, a Turkish NGO that works on human-rights issues ranging from the prevention of torture to the rights of the mentally disabled. Since 2002, Cengiz has been the lawyer for the Alliance of Turkish Protestant Churches.