More curbs on coverage of Turkish government’s handling of quake aftermath
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns two Turkish court decisions censoring coverage of the aftermath of the 6 February earthquake on the grounds of “protecting the reputation” of private sector companies. They come just two months ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections and follow other measures throttling criticism of the government’s handling of the disaster. The authorities must stop restricting press freedom and respect investigative reporting, RSF says.
Judges in Istanbul and the southern city of Mersin ordered the withdrawal of two media reports in the space of three days. One was an investigative story by the daily BirGün (“One Day”) about the sale of surplus clothes that had been earmarked for victims of the earthquake. The other was a dispatch by the independent news agency ANKA about a reconstruction project in disaster areas that was allocated to companies close to the government.
The judicial censorship followed fines that the High Council for Broadcasting (RTÜK) imposed on three national TV broadcasters on 22 February for criticising the government’s disaster management, and a series of obstacles to coverage of the situation on the ground after the earthquake.
“After the police, the government and the High Council for Broadcasting, it’s now judges who are targeting press freedom in Turkey. The country needs transparency more than ever, but the withdrawal of these articles yet again highlights a desire to prevent the dissemination of any information questioning the government’s post-earthquake management. They also raise concern about an escalation in this type of online censorship in the run-up to the elections scheduled for 14 May. We call on the authorities to end this kind of obstruction and to respect the investigative work of journalists.
It was to “protect the reputation” of a company that, on 6 March, a judge in Mersin ordered the withdrawal of an article by investigative reporter Bahadir Ozgur headlined “Surplus clothing intended for earthquake victims sold to a Yemeni company” (“Depremzedeye giden fazla giysi Yemenli şirkete satılmış”), although the article was well sourced and verified. Riding roughshod over the right to information, the court ordered the BirGün website and 15 other sites to take down the offending article or references to it.
The ANKA news agency was censored on the same grounds on 8 March, when an Istanbul judge decided to ban a 9-day old dispatch reporting that the government had asked nine companies that are its supporters to build 85,250 homes in areas in the provinces of Kahramanmaras, Malatya, Osmaniye, Hatay and Adana where at least 50,000 people lost their lives. The article also quoted experts and persons with relevant professional training as saying it was imprudent to embark on this reconstruction just three weeks after the earthquake without analysing the terrain first. ANKA’s lawyers have appealed against the decision and are calling for the withdrawal of this “arbitrary measure.”
550 journalistic items censored in 2022
In both cases, the judges based their decision on Law 5651 on the Internet, which was adopted in 2007. A 2014 amendment (article 9) added the concept of “preserving the reputation” of persons or entities. This law (and this article in particular) has been abused by judges repeatedly and constitutes a formidable weapon for restricting democratic debate about such subjects as political corruption and clientelism.
RSF’s partner in Turkey, Bianet.org, reports that at least 550 press articles and other pieces of journalistic content were censored in 2002 and that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, this was done on the grounds of “reputation protection.” In its 2022 round-up, Bianet also reported an increase in measures targeting such investigative journalists as Barış Pehlivan, Murat Ağırel, Barış Terkoğlu, Can Dündar, Bülent Mumay and Erk Acarer.