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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.
Ma Jian is an award-winning Chinese writer. His latest novel is China Dream. His work is banned in China
Sarah Sands is Chair of the Gender Equality Advisory Council for G7 and a board member of Index on Censorship. Sands was the former editor of BBC’s Today programme
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”97329″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”right”][vc_column_text]“Fake news”. The phrase emerged only a matter of years ago to become familiar to everybody. The moral panic around fake news has grown so rapidly that it became a common talking point. In its short life it has been dubbed the Collins Dictionary’s word of 2017 and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists say it was one of the driving factors that made them set their symbolic Doomsday Clock to two minutes from midnight in 2019. It is a talking point on the lips of academics, media pundits and politicians.
For many, it is feared that “fake news” could lead to the end of democratic society, clouding our ability to think critically about important issues. Yet the febrile atmosphere surrounding it has led to legislation around the world which could potentially harm free expression far more than the conspiracy theories being peddled.
In Russia and Singapore politicians have taken steps to legislate against the risk of “fake news” online. A report published in April 2019 by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport could lead to stronger restrictions on free expression on the internet in the UK.
The Online Harms White Paper proposes ways in which the government can combat what are deemed to be harmful online activities. However, while some the harmful activities specified — such as terrorism and child abuse — fall within the government’s scope, the paper also declares various unclearly defined practices such as “disinformation” as under scrutiny.
Internet regulation would be enforced by a new independent regulatory body, similar to Ofcom, which currently regulates broadcasts on UK television and radio. Websites would be expected to conform to the regulations set by the body.
According to Jeremy Wright, the UK’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the intention is that this body will have “sufficient teeth to hold companies to account when they are judged to have breached their statutory duty of care”.
“This will include the power to issue remedial notices and substantial fines,” he says, “and we will consult on even more stringent sanctions, including senior management liability and the blocking of websites.”
According to Sharon White, the chief executive of the UK’s media regulatory body Ofcom, the term “fake news” is problematic because it “is bandied around with no clear idea of what it means, or agreed definition. The term has taken on a variety of meanings, including a description of any statement that is not liked or agreed with by the reader.” The UK government prefers to use the term “disinformation”, which it defines as “information which is created or disseminated with the deliberate intent to mislead; this could be to cause harm, or for personal, political or financial gain”.
However, the difficulty of proving that false information was published with an intention to cause harm could potentially affect websites which publish honestly held opinions or satirical content.
As a concept, “fake news” is frequently prone to bleeding beyond the boundaries of any attempt to define it. Indeed, for many politicians, that is not only the nature of the phrase but the entire point of it.
“Fake news” has become a tool for politicians to discredit voices which oppose them. Although the phrase may have been popularised by US President Donald Trump to attack his critics, the idea of “fake news” has since become adopted by authoritarian regimes worldwide as a justification to deliberately silence opposition.
As late US Senator John McCain wrote in a piece for The Washington Post: “the phrase ‘fake news’ — granted legitimacy by an American president — is being used by autocrats to silence reporters, undermine political opponents, stave off media scrutiny and mislead citizens.
“This assault on journalism and free speech proceeds apace in places such as Russia, Turkey, China, Egypt, Venezuela and many others. Yet even more troubling is the growing number of attacks on press freedom in traditionally free and open societies, where censorship in the name of national security is becoming more common.”
In Singapore — a country ranked by Reporters Without Borders as 151 out of 180 nations for press freedom in 2019 — a bill was introduced to parliament ostensibly intended to combat fake news.
Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill would permit government ministers to order the correction or removal of online content which is deemed to be false. It is justified under very broad, tautological definitions which state amongst other things that “a falsehood is a statement of fact that is false or misleading”. On this basis, members of the Singaporean government could easily use this law to censor any articles, memes, videos, photographs or advertising that offends them personally, or is seen to impair the government’s authority.
In addition to more conventional definitions of public interest, the term is defined in the bill as including anything which “could be prejudicial to the friendly relations of Singapore with other countries.” The end result is that Singaporeans could potentially be charged not only for criticising their own government, but Singapore’s allies as well.
Marte Hellema, communications and media programme manager for the human rights organisation FORUM-ASIA explains her organisation’s concerns: “We are seriously concerned that the bill is primarily intended to repress freedom of expression and silence dissent in Singapore.”
Hellema pointed out that the law would be in clear violation of international human rights standards and criticised its use of vague terms and lack of definitions.
“Combined with intrusive measures such as the power to impose heavy penalties for violations and order internet services to disable content, authorities will have the ability to curtail the human rights and fundamental freedoms of anyone who criticises the government, particularly human rights defenders and media,” Hellema says.
In Russia, some of the most repressive legislation to come out of the wave of talk about “fake news” was signed into law earlier this year.
In March 2019, the Russian parliament passed two amendments to existing data legislation to combat fake news on the internet.
The laws censor online content which is deemed to be “fake news” according to the government, or which “exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of the Russian Federation”.
Online news outlets and users which repeatedly run afoul of the laws will face fines of up to 1.5 million roubles (£17,803) for being seen to have published “unreliable” information.
Additionally, individuals who have been accused of specifically criticising the state, the law or the symbols which represent them risk further fines of 300,000 roubles (£3,560) or even prison sentences.
The move has been criticised by public figures and activists, who see the new laws as an attempt to stifle public criticism of the government and increase control over the internet. The policy is regarded as a continuation of previous legislation in Russia designed to suppress online anonymity and blacklist undesirable websites.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”With contributions from Ian Rankin, Herta Müller, Peter Sands, Timandra Harkness, David Ulin, John Lloyd, Sheng Keyi and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]
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[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Special Report: The Age of Unreason”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]
[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Global View”][vc_column_text]
[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”In Focus”][vc_column_text]
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