The International Press Institute (IPI), the global network for independent journalism, calls on Turkish authorities to allow independent media coverage of this week’s destructive earthquakes following several reports of the arrests of journalists covering the aftermath as well as threats against independent reporting by government officials. IPI also calls on Turkey to lift all restrictions on social media as vital communications channels for rescue efforts and for keeping the public informed in times of crisis.

“The IPI global network expresses our solidarity with the victims of these horrific earthquakes, the devastating impact of which continues to unfold. This is a terrible tragedy. We express our support and admiration for all of the journalists reporting on the death and destruction amid safety risks and in some cases personal trauma”, IPI Executive Director Frane Maroevic said.

“It is also important to recall the crucial role that journalism plays in any crisis, including a natural disaster response. While we understand the need to prevent disinformation and journalists must not hamper rescue efforts, independent reporting is indispensable to keeping the wider public as well as those directly affected informed in a timely manner.

For this reason, we are increasingly concerned about reports of arrests of journalists and threats to media coverage, which unfortunately follow a familiar pattern of the authorities harassing critical media. We urge the Turkish authorities to ensure that all journalists and media can do their essential job of documenting the aftermath of these earthquakes without interference.”

Emre Kizilkaya, Chair of IPI’s Turkey National Committee and Vice Chair of IPI’s Executive Board said “On behalf of the IPI national committee we are deeply concerned for the safety and welfare of our colleagues and their families at this terrible time and salute their bravery as they take on the challenge of reporting this horror to the nation. They bear enormous responsibility and dangers. Instead of obstructing and threatening media workers, the government should instead be supporting them and ensuring their safety as they pursue their tasks. The free flow of information is an essential part of the rescue response.”

Threats to independent media coverage

In the days following the massive earthquakes that rocked Turkey and Syria, the Turkish government has progressively ramped up pressure on independent media coverage amid growing criticism of the authorities’ emergency response and disaster preparedness.

On February 6, 2023, the chair of Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), Ebubekir Şahin, warned journalists and broadcasters that they had a legal obligation “not to share information which harms the search and rescue efforts in the earthquake area and causes panic and disinformation.”

Claiming that some of the news has disrupted the work carried out in the earthquake zone, Şahin wrote, “It is not possible for us to ignore the organizations that make manipulative broadcasts with malicious intent.”

RTÜK is a key censorship vehicle for the Turkish government, repeatedly targeting independent broadcasters with fines and suspensions. It previously attempted to censor media coverage of past disasters, including fining broadcasters over their coverage of the wildfires that ravaged parts of Turkey in 2021.

Then, on February 7, 2023, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened widespread retaliation for spreading “disinformation” about the earthquakes during the speech in which he declared a three-month state of emergency in ten provinces that were affected by two destructive earthquakes in southeastern Turkey.

Erdogan said: “Our prosecutors will identify those who try to create social chaos through some inhumane methods and take the necessary action. We are closely monitoring those who are trying to polarize the nation through fake news and distortions. Today is not the day of discussion, when the time comes, we will open the [list] we keep.”

IPI has seen how in the past decade the Turkish authorities have weaponized the fear of terrorism, civil unrest and disinformation to target journalists for legitimate criticism. With elections due in June, it is clear that this tragedy, and the successes and failings in the government’s response will be picked over by politicians in the election campaign. IPI therefore calls on all politicians to allow journalists to do their job without pressure or censorship and for the authorities to resist using this tragedy to clamp down on legitimate public debate.

Incidents reported to date include:

On February 7, 2023, the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation against journalists Merdan Yanardağ and Enver Aysever on allegations of “openly inciting the public to hatred and enmity”, a vague charge that has been used to target journalists in the past. The investigation was reported to be in relation to the journalists’ criticism of the government’s insufficient disaster recovery and response operations.

The same day, Volkan Pekal, a correspondent for the newspaper Evrensel in the city of Adana, was detained in front of a city hospital where he was attempting to speak with relatives of patients. The police told Pekal that the governor had issued a ban on taking pictures and detained him for “violating patients’ privacy” and “filming without permission” before later releasing him.

Local journalists in the city of Diyarbakir who were following search-and-rescue efforts in buildings destroyed in the earthquake were prevented by police from reporting citing the “state of emergency”. Meanwhile, journalists Mahmut Altıntaş and Sema Çağlak were reportedly detained in Urfa and another reporter, Mehmet Güleş, was detained in Diyarbakır.

Other reports stated that several journalists covering rescue operations in a shopping mall in Yenişehir district and in Merkez Rezan district were forced out of the areas by the police while pro-government media were allowed to stay, again citing the state of emergency.

Today it has been reported that the Communications Directorate confirmed that journalists without the government issued press cards can continue working in the earthquake zone.

Social media access restrictions

Lastly, February 8, local sources reported that access to Twitter and TikTok had been blocked by the government in the afternoon. There have been no official statements on the shutdowns. The leader of the main opposition party CHP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, confirmed the shutdown of social media stating that he instructed his team and party officials to use a VPN for on the ground coordination efforts.

Journalists reported that Fahrettin Altun, director of the Presidential Communications Office. had said that the Information and Communications Technologies Authority (BTK) was granted the power to restrict bandwidth ex officio by President Erdoğan.