In Turkey, the state resorts to censorship majeure

Screenshot taken from the address to the nation by President Erdoğan, shared on the president's  official Twitter account.

Rocked by a devastating earthquake on February 6, citizens in Turkey now also have to deal with censorship measures imposed by the state. This time the authorities have avoided introducing a media gag order, a practice often resorted to in times of crisis. Instead, there have been plenty of direct and indirect threats, including by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, temporary throttling of Twitter and TikTok, as well as detentions and criminal proceedings against social media users. There are also reports of journalists being detained and targeted for covering the wreckage.

Many ask whether restrictions are a futile attempt to tone down the criticism of the state following its response to the earthquake-affected areas. But to the leader of the opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, it does not matter because, “If there in one person responsible for this, it is Erdoğan.” In a video message Kılıçdaroğlu shared on Twitter on February 8 from one of the earthquake-hit provinces, he said he had instructed all CHP mayors to push through any bureaucratic hurdles and “if it takes getting arrested for providing people with blankets and bread, then so be it.” The video address prompted the trending #GelsinlerTutuklasinlar (“Let them come and arrest”) used by Kılıçdaroğlu himself for every recovery or aid work update carried out by CHP and the public.

‘We will open the notebook we keep’

A day before Kılıçdaroğlu's address, on February 7, Erdoğan addressed the nation from the State Information Coordination Center. After sharing the most recent updates, including an announcement of a three-month state of emergency across all ten provinces hit by the earthquake, the president who is facing his toughest election come May 14, also lashed out at those criticizing the government's response. “We follow those who intend to set our people against each other with fake news and distortions. This is not the day of debate. When the day comes, we will open the notebook we keep,” Erdoğan said, adding the prosecutors were identifying those who attempted to “cause social chaos through inhumane methods and are taking necessary measures.”

News of detentions followed promptly.

On February 7, academic Özgün Emre Koç was detained on suspicion of “inciting the public to hatred and hostility” after tweeting the following:

There are thousands of soldiers in the barracks located in Hatay alone. There is a commando brigade, there are mechanized units that can reach anywhere, there are regimental commands … Even if they did nothing, they could have cleared the rubble, distributed soup to the people and boosted people's morale. But you did not do it. You are traitors.

Hatay is among the worst-hit provinces where the absence of search and rescue operations was heavily criticized.

Academic and cyber-rights activist Yaman Akdeniz tweeted in response to Koç's detention:

Özgün Emre Koç was taken for questioning to the Istanbul Police Department seven hours after tweeting this tweet. The state, which is unable to reach Hatay, is after those who tweet. Those who cannot handle criticism in the meantime, keep doing politics from where they sit.

Koç was released the following day. In a tweet, he wrote, “I am back. Thank you to everyone who supported me. I and others, as well as millions, will keep speaking the truth. But we, too, took a note in our notebooks.”

On February 10, a member of Turkey's Workers Party youth branch was sentenced to house arrest for his social media posts. Tweeting about the arrest, the Party said, “Handing a house arrest to a young person at a time when he can participate in solidarity activities in the city he is currently living in or in a disaster area reflects the nature of this leadership!”

According to the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), a local non-profit offering legal aid to media representatives, investigations were also launched against two journalists — Merdan Yanardağ and Enver Aysever — on February 7, as a result of journalists’ tweets about the disaster relief efforts. MLSA also questioned the legality of the duration of the state of emergency. “The 6th Article of Law No.7269 on Measures Relating to Disasters that Affect Public Life and Relief Assistance sets the period for the exercising of state of emergency powers at 15 days after the end of a disaster. As such, it is quite questionable whether the duration of the state of emergency being declared as three months is justifiable,” said the organization.

Already on February 6, the day the earthquake hit Turkey, the Security General Directorate stated they had identified 13 social media accounts that allegedly shared “provocative” content to “spread panic and fear among the public,” while the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office said they have “launched an ex-officio criminal investigation against those who “openly disseminate information misleading the public in an attempt to spread fear and panic,” reported MLSA. By February 7, at least four social media users were taken into custody:

By February 10, that number was over 300 users. In a tweet shared by the general directorate of security, it said, “302 account managers were identified as sharing provocative posts about the earthquake on social media platforms. 37 were detained, and 10 were arrested.”

In the meantime, the directorate of communications launched “the Disinformation Reporting Service” and invited the public to download the app and report “manipulative” news reports and social media posts. For those familiar with the country's digital censorship history, this was a reminder of another smartphone app that was introduced in 2016 by the general directorate of security for users to report social media posts and accounts they considered to be terrorist propaganda.

Network disruptions

Twitter and TikTok users said they experienced issues with accessing the platforms on February 8. At a time, when “people's lives are hanging in the balance this is a disastrous time for the government to disconnect people from communication platforms,” said #KeepItOn campaign manager, Felicia Anthonio, at Access Now in an appeal to the government of Turkey. In the same appeal, Marwa Fatafta, the MENA policy and advocacy manager at Access Now, stressed the importance of online platforms, acting as “crucial lifeline for people looking for their missing, checking-in on their loved ones, and finding ways to save lives.”

In the wake of the disaster, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok became useful resources for users. These platforms proved especially effective for those stuck under the rubble sharing their locations. Others resorted to using these platforms to share photographs and information about missing persons or information about various ways to support local rescue operations and earthquake victims.

But this was also where the government was being criticized. From the slow response to poor relief efforts, the government was accused of a lack of interest in human lives while instead focusing on lucrative business deals that had turned the country into a mass construction site. In her piece for The Atlantic, journalist Ayşegül Sert wrote, “The country was a construction site. It has become a cemetery.”

Some 12 hours later access to Twitter was restored.

The throttling of the platforms did not stop people from trying to help:

In response to network disruptions, Turkey's opposition party Republican People (CH) Party filed a criminal complaint against the Minister of Transport and Infrastructure and other involved administrators over their decision to narrow the bandwidth in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Similarly, MLSA's co-director, lawyer, Veysel Ok, said a criminal complaint was filed against mobile network operators and the executives of the Information Technologies and Communications Authority (BTK) for “misuse of public duty, prevention of communication, reckless killing, and reckless injury.” Ok said, “A state has the duty to protect its citizens. Every state institution has its own responsibilities in this context. By cutting the social media access that gave people a chance to increase their chances to survive, the BTK executives have abused their authority. This constitutes a crime everywhere in the world.” As for holding GSM operators to account, Ok said, “While citizens from all across Turkey have mobilized to help earthquake victims, GSM operators providing the world’s most expensive communication and internet services have still not improved their services in the disaster region. This prevents journalists from doing their job and, even worse, disrupts search and rescue operations.”

Lack of mobile connectivity and access to the internet was reported across most affected provinces. The mayor of Hatay tweeted:

We are experiencing huge problems with accessing the internet, if today is not the day they are by our side, when is? I urge everyone involved to do their part. It is very critical for all of us that communication channels are open at the moment.

Others like the Alternative Informatics Association demanded the Information Technologies and Communications Authority (BTK) stop restricting bandwidth, and the Constitutional Court (AYM) demanded that the bandwidth restrictions be stopped and not repeated.

Internet bandwidth throttling is a common censorship practice in Turkey. In November 2022, a deadly explosion on Istikal rocked the city. Shortly after the incident, the Information Technologies and Communications Authority (BTK), restricted access to social media platforms. Authorities also launched an investigation against 25 social media accounts for posting allegedly provocative content, creating fear and panic, and inciting hatred and enmity. Turkish lawmakers ratified a new disinformation bill in October 2022. Previously similar disruptions were used between 2015 and 2017 when Turkey was rocked by a series of terrorist attacks (in addition to the military coup in 2016). During this period, limiting access to social media platforms became a common practice, in most cases implemented through bandwidth throttling and DNS poisoning. In October 2019, social media platforms Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp were restricted for access during military operations in Syria. During an attack on Turkish troops in Idlib (Syria) in 2020, killing at least 33 troops, Turkey blocked access to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram yet again.

In August 2021, the ruling party announced plans to set up a regulatory body to monitor social media for what Erdoğan described as the “terror of lies,” as well as introduce a new law that would hold distributors of “misinformation” and “disinformation” accountable with a possible prison sentence of five years. The decision came following a summer of wildfires that wreaked havoc across Turkish coasts during which residents took to social media to criticize the authorities for their lack of swift measures in fighting the wildfires.

Disrupting news circulation

As time ticked by, more and more scenes from the provinces affected by the deadly and devastating earthquake started reaching viewers in Turkey. The majority of television channels turned to live broadcasts, with reporters trying to reach the affected sites. However, not all reporting was as transparent. Several government-affiliated television channels were criticized for silencing survivors of the earthquake on television over their criticism of the slow response or total state absence in the first hours of the quake.

The drone footage from each province sent further shockwaves at the scale of destruction and despair. Shortly after the state of emergency was announced, journalists covering the earthquake started reporting difficulties accessing sites, filming, and speaking to the victims.

Volkan Pekal, a journalist with Turkish Evrensel news outlet, was briefly detained at a hospital in Adana where the injured were arriving on their own. Pekal was told by the hospital administration he was violating patient privacy and that it was prohibited to shoot at the hospital by the governor's decision, though he was not shown any official letter from the governor's office. Pekal was held by the police but was eventually let go. According to MLSA's most recent documentation, at least 14 journalists were obstructed from doing their jobs: four journalists were detained; at least five were subject to police intervention; three were physically attacked, and two are facing investigation for their social media posts.

The following day, on February 8, the Directorate of Communications said:

Photojournalist Ensar Ozdemir said it was now clear why the authorities introduced the state of emergency. “Journalists in Diyarbakir are being arbitrarily blocked. Police are saying its the order from AFAD (Disaster and Emergency Management Authority) and that they did not have the approval from the head of the communication department.”

According to MLSA, any attempt to prevent journalists’ right to report in a disaster zone under the State of Emergency is arbitrary:

Even during a State of Emergency the right to communication and press freedoms is protected under Article 22 and 28. The State of Emergency cannot be used to restrict communications. Any implementation that seeks to restrict journalistic activities is a violation of Article 14 of the Constitution theProhibition of abuse of fundamental rights. Attempts to stop reporters from covering the news in the earthquake zones is not only a violation of the Constitution, but also of international agreements to which Turkey is party. Such steps are an open violation of the freedom of the press. As such, officials asking for accreditation or official press cards from local and international media numbers are violating the law and are acting arbitrarily as such interventions have no legal basis.

Ebubekir Şahin, the president of the Turkish broadcast regulator Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) also warned against “demoralizing” media coverage of the destructive earthquakes and announced that they are monitoring TV networks for such reporting. To which, RTÜK member Okan Konuralp responded in a tweet:

Broadcasters must convey the bitter truth of the earthquake area with all its nakedness; and carry the cries of our helpless people to their screens! Do not be afraid of any threat because what this beautiful country needs most today is solidarity and truth itself!

In response to reports of various means of censorship used against journalists, the partners in the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) called “upon the Turkish authorities to immediately lift the restrictions on access to information and freedom of expression, and to ensure that journalists and media workers are not blocked from covering the news.”

At the time of writing this story, the death toll from the earthquake had reached 29,605 people, and there are over 80,000 people injured. By the time it's published and read, the numbers will grow. And so will the anger. Recently, a local fact-checking platform Dogruluk Payi shared data about an earthquake tax that the state imposed following the 1999 earthquake in which 17,000 people were killed. The platform reports that between 2000 and 2022 the total amount of collected earthquake tax totalled USD 38.4 billion. There are no reports specifying how exactly this money has been spent. Due to the shortcomings in the government's response, this has become a major point of contention for the public. The question that lingers is whether resorting to censorship will save the state from its past mistakes and intentional lack of oversight?

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