Journalists battle for truth after Turkish earthquakes

When Turkey’s Kahramanmaraş province was hit by two powerful earthquakes on 6 February 2023, the government responded by attacking the country’s already beleaguered press and journalists. It is time now to take stock, lay bare abuses and ask the right questions.

Over 55,000 people died in the earthquakes in Syria and Turkey and thousands are still missing. In Turkey alone, there was a devastating effect on at least 10 provinces, wiping several cities off the map.

The harrowing aftermath of the earthquake was compounded by the government’s inadequacy in providing disaster relief. Beyond that came a series of measures to stop the media from reporting on the earthquake, ranging from detentions and intimidation to physical attacks.

In the time between the earthquakes hitting on 6 February and the first week of March, 10 journalists were taken into custody, with two of them arrested for their reports from the disaster ground. In addition to that, 26 journalists were targets of physical attacks or attempted attacks in the earthquake region, initiated by security forces and unidentified groups. A state agency gave three independent news stations astronomical fines, and journalists working in pro-government media have targeted at least three journalists for their work in the disaster region.

On 9 February, the day after the government declared a state of emergency in the affected regions, it blocked Twitter for up to 12 hours. This move didn’t only hinder the coordination of relief efforts, but also led to hundreds, maybe even thousands of lives being lost, as many earthquake victims were tweeting their status and asking for help from under the rubble in those most crucial hours.

Even for a government known for its repressive policies, why did shutting down social media and stopping the press take precedence over rescue efforts?

In Turkey, where the vast majority of media is in government hands and internet access restrictions are common, the earthquake laid bare the disastrous consequences of two decades of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Following the earthquakes, thousands of buildings collapsed, with yet thousands more severely damaged — believed by many construction experts to be a result of a series of amnesties which legalised unregistered developments, and the support for government-friendly construction companies.

The media exposed the links between the government and construction companies, which could easily obtain licenses for unfit buildings. This strictly contradicts the government’s narrative of the earthquake being the “disaster of the century”.

News reports on buildings — including that of the Kahramanmaraş Chamber of Civil Engineers, which survived the two quakes without so much as the glass of a window shattering — stood testimony to the fact that although the earthquakes were natural, the disaster was man-made.

Covering up these incidents by stopping journalism took precedence over saving lives.

The first earthquake-related detention occurred as early as 7 February, when Evrensel Daily’s Adana correspondent Volkan Pekal was taken into custody by police officers while filming at Adana City Hospital on charges of recording “without permission”.

By the third day after the earthquake, four journalists had been detained while filming or interviewing in the affected cities. Many journalists now face investigations under Turkey’s newest “fake news” law which makes “spreading misleading news publicly” a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.

On 27 February, local journalists and brothers Ali İmat and İbrahim İmat from the earthquake-stricken town of Osmaniye were arrested on the same charge. They exposed how hundreds of tents in Osmaniye were kept in storage houses, instead of being distributed to survivors.

There were also threats. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told journalists the government was monitoring those who were critical of Turkey’s handling of the disaster. Turkey’s state broadcast monitoring agency, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), issued Halk TV, Tele 1 TV and Fox TV with five programme suspensions and administrative fines for their news reports on the disaster.

More than one month after the earthquake, many cities still don’t have running water; debris and rubble haven’t been cleared up in many places. Survivors still don’t have access to tents, let alone housing. With general elections due in two months, instead of addressing the needs of survivors and putting in place procedures to ensure that the next earthquake will not result in a similar outcome, the government of Turkey still chooses to demonise and punish independent journalism.

The silence after the earthquake in northwestern Syria is deafening

Syrian television channels have recently been showing images of president Bashar al-Assad visiting buildings damaged in last week’s earthquakes that have killed more than 40,000 people.

In the wake of a natural disaster, such demonstrations of concern and empathy with those affected are commonplace among politicians worldwide.

Yet some argue that the images on Syria’s screens are not what they seem and amount to disinformation.

Moufida Anker, a Syrian journalist and activist, said: “It is terrifying what is happening. The dictator appeared to be laughing. The most terrible thing is that he deceived the international organisations that came to support him and deluded them that the buildings in front of them were destroyed by the earthquake. Many of them were destroyed earlier by his own planes; we have proof of that with the photos archived earlier.”

Assad’s critics say he has found in this disaster an opportunity to break the international isolation that was imposed more than 10 years ago.

The earthquake has increased the oppression of Syrians in the northwest of the country that has been going on since 2011. The UN says that since the uprising, the Assad regime has killed more than 400,000 Syrian citizens for reasons related to freedom of opinion, expression, and demonstration, and hundreds of thousands are in prison for the same reason.

Syrians living in the northwest of the country, on the border with Turkey, and the hardest hit by the earthquake are being ignored and silenced.

From the first moment of the earthquake, and despite the horror of what it left behind, the Assad regime has practised a media blackout regarding news from the northwest of the country. Assad’s loyal channels do not talk about the number of victims there, which far exceeded the number of victims in the areas controlled by the Syrian government.

The media and social media in Assad-controlled areas are subject to great censorship by the Syrian government security forces, as civilians in these areas are afraid of showing any sympathy for the people in the northwest. We recently documented an arrest carried out by the regime’s security forces of a citizen from Homs who called his relatives in the north of the country to check on their health after the earthquake.

The aid donations that have flowed into the country from the UN, people in Arab nations and other countries have not been reaching those in the northwest, with many saying much of the aid has been diverted into areas controlled by the Syrian government as well as being illegally sold in Syria’s markets.

Dozens of photos have been circulated by activists in Damascus and Aleppo that appear to show influential members of the Assad regime to be involved. It is little wonder that Assad is now being called “the aid thief”.

The first earthquake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, hit Syria at 4.17am on Monday 6 February. A second quake, measuring 7.5, hit nine hours later.

According to official statistics published by the volunteer Syrian Civil Defence organisation, or White Helmets as they are better known, 2,274 civilians died in north-western Syria as a result of the quakes.

In the week since the disaster, the United Nations has admitted that it has been unable to provide help to the Syrians in the northwest of the country.

The Idlib region and the area around Aleppo are home to more than five million Syrians, most of whom have been displaced after years of attacks from the Syrian army, whose mission is supposedly to protect Syrians.

Martin Griffiths, the UN’s under-secretary-general and the emergency relief coordinator, said: “We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.”

This prompted Syrian activist and journalist Muhammad Tata to set up a fund to collect donations from the afflicted to the United Nations, an ironic action intended to criticise the international body’s inability to meet the urgent calls for aid.

Many destroyed buildings have been adorned with the official flag of the United Nations, and signs placed on the rubble saying “We died…Thank you for letdown.”

After the quake, it took many days before the Syrian government approved the opening of crossings from Turkey to facilitate the entry of aid, and this at a time when the Assad regime did not even recognise the earthquake victims in Idlib and area around Aleppo – the official government death toll left out those in areas not controlled by the government. When al-Salam and al-Rahi crossings were finally opened, Assad was accused of doing so for political gain.

“They who died survived, and they who survived died” is a phrase now used by hundreds of Syrians on social media, amid wholesale grief and mourning for loved ones and friends and international impotence.

Rizik Al-Abi’s fee for this article will be given to those affected by the earthquake in Syria

Turkey’s devastating earthquake is no excuse to grab rights

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.

Iran protests: “Mahsa” Amini does not exist

The murder of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman in Iran by the Gasht-e-Ershad ‘guidance patrols’ in September sparked protests worldwide. Celebrities cut off their hair and chanted ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ in support of the movement born out of her funeral. But ‘Mahsa Amini’ – as she is identified by the mainstream press – is a misnomer.

“Her formal name according to the Iranian state is Mahsa, but she was known as Mahsa only by the authorities,” British-Kurdish writer and organiser Elif Sarican told Index. “She was known as Jina to her family, friends and everyone that knew her. It’s what is on her gravestone.”

Sarican described the deliberate misnaming of Kurds as a tactic to deny their existence. The insistence on calling Jina the wrong name is “painful” she said, particularly when it’s by the mainstream media.

“It’s very difficult in Iran – not impossible – but very difficult, to have a Kurdish name,” she explained. “The Iranian state is very specific about the kind of Iran it envisages. Unfortunately, similarly to other parts of Kurdistan, Kurdish people cannot name their children with Kurdish names.”

In 1990, Sarican and her family migrated to London from Maraş in north Kurdistan, the site of one of the largest Kurdish massacres in contemporary Turkey. It was aimed at people just like her family – Kurdish Alevis.

The unrest in Iran, Sarican says, is representative of a universal Kurdish experience. It’s an uprising of people that have been denied for 100 years.

“‘Women, Life Freedom’, or ‘Jin, Jîyan, Azadî’ in Kurdish, comes from the Kurdish Women’s Movement,” she continued. “It’s a part of the Kurdish Freedom Movement founded by the imprisoned Abdullah Öcalan.”

Since the news of Jina Amini’s murder broke, the slogan has been adopted internationally as a symbol of solidarity. But the phrase, Sarican tells me, has been dissociated from its radical, political origins. It exists as a result of decades of struggle for women’s liberation and marked a big shift in the Kurdish Freedom Movement when women’s liberation was adopted and cemented as a core pillar.

“Bringing together women, life and freedom is what the Kurdish Freedom Movement ideology is. It’s based on radical democracy, ecology and women’s liberation. All of these coming together is the only way to achieve freedom.”

It’s no surprise, she explains, that Iranian protesters took inspiration and borrowed this slogan from their brothers and sisters in other parts of Kurdistan. “This is an expression of universal Kurdish struggle.”

The persecution of Kurds persists across the region. “100 years ago – and this year is the 100-year anniversary of the Treaty of Lozan – the Kurdish regions were divided into four nation states: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. As a result of that, the experience of Kurdish people has been denied,” Sarican explained.

Kurdish language, culture and political expression are suppressed across the region. Fundamentally, they are denied the right to exist, she says. In Turkey, in the last 10 years, many Kurdish activists, elected MPs, mayors and councillors have been imprisoned. Although the Kurdish language is no longer formally banned in Turkey, it is repressed.

“To have education in your mother tongue is an international human right,” she explains. This is not a right granted to Kurds in Turkey.

While the treatment of Kurds in Iran, Syria and Iraq is brutal, Sarican says, it is limited to their own borders. Turkey not only oppresses Kurds in its own borders, but has invaded Syria, and continues to build military bases in northern Iraq.

“They are interfering in the lives of Kurdish people in at least three areas of Kurdistan. When the protests were happening in Iran and there was solidarity being shown in parts of Turkey, the police brutally cracked down on these demonstrations.”

Mournfully, she tells me that this month is the 10-year anniversary of the assassination of three Kurdish women by Turkish intelligence in Paris. In a disturbing mark of the anniversary, three more activists were assassinated in the same location just a few weeks ago.

“The Kurdish people are feeling unsafe not only in most parts of Kurdistan, but also in other parts of Europe,” Sarican continued.

Kurdish people constitute 10% of Iran’s population but make up about 50% of their political prisoner numbers. Many prisoners are denied proper health access, the most basic human rights, proper visits with family and connection with the outside world. Sadly, she says, many European states also extend these policies against Kurdish people in Europe.

“Kurdish communities are some of the most politically organised. The Kurdish freedom movement is not only one of the biggest political movements in the Middle East right now it is actually one of the largest social movements in Europe as well. [Criminalisation of our communities] really curtails and impacts the organising and protests.”

“Staying in tune with what’s happening in Kurdistan is of the utmost importance. It’s important that any future, whether it’s in Turkey or Iran – because it’s all connected, very very closely – is a future that works for the people. That’s a future of radical democracy, of ecology and of women’s liberation. Because otherwise these theocratic dictatorships will cement themselves.”

She stressed the significance of understanding the political projects that are already in existence across Kurdistan, instead of trying to impose a Western solution. “My call would be for people to understand the Kurdish Freedom Movement programme and what it’s offering. Read the memoir of Kurdish revolutionary Sakine Cansiz. Read the works of Abdullah Öcalan. Understand what the political project is and how we can work together to realise it. [The crisis in the Middle East] will only result in an actual, meaningful freedom if there is a political vision, led by the Kurdish freedom movement. It’s time we support that movement and come together to make sure that that is what the future of Kurdistan looks like.”