As I write, over 20,000 people have now been confirmed dead in the aftermath of earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. Hundreds of thousands of people are missing, buildings are unsafe, what limited public infrastructure that has survived is completely overwhelmed and it’s cold. Freezing cold. The survivors, who in too many cases have lost everything, are too scared to enter buildings for fear of aftershocks and too cold to sleep in tents – so at night they walk to try and keep warm, clutching their loved ones to them.
Our news is filled with these images, these stories of heartbreak and death. And most importantly the personal stories behind the headlines. The sheer scale of the devastation is too much to comprehend and yet we have to. This disaster requires a global response, it tests our humanity and our commitment to each other – wherever we live.
Which is why a free media is so important, why journalists are not a hindrance to rescue efforts but part of those efforts and why this is a time to protect everyone’s access to media sources – not restrict them.
The journalists who are reporting from the disaster are chronicling the devastation in real time. Without fear, they are telling the stories that we need to hear and the world needs to see in order to mobilise the help that they need.
The same journalists will be those who ask the questions of authorities in Turkey and Syria as to why in the initial days after the earthquake, help was not immediately forthcoming for every community.
But a disaster of this nature, in the hands of governments who lean towards authoritarianism, becomes an opportunity for oppression.
Already, the Turkish Parliament has authorised a state of emergency in 10 Turkish provinces. Under the Turkish constitution, a state of emergency provides for the suspension of basic rights and freedoms. Initially, the new powers granted to President Erdogan will last for just three months but as a difficult set of elections approaches for Erdogan, time will tell how soon he returns those rights and freedoms we all seek to protect. The Turkish government also imposed a temporary Twitter shutdown after criticism of its repsonse.
While the world now watches on as help and aid arrives in Turkey, it will soon cease to be a feature of the nightly news and it is in those moments when the global attention is elsewhere that emergency powers for a disaster become desirable tools for control.
The rebuilding of Turkey will be a truly international endeavour, but as well as replacing the lost buildings and homes, the freedoms and rights which have been suspended also need to be returned and media freedom needs to be reinstated with immediate effect.