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.

How well do you know the beautiful game?

The World Cup is just around the corner, but feelings are mixed. There are many – including diehard football fans – who are saying they won’t watch it due to Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers and its dire human rights record. This isn’t the first time football and free expression has collided. But just how common is the intersection between the so-called beautiful game and human rights? Take our quiz below and find out.

And don’t forget you can read more on this topic in our Autumn issue of Index.

Good luck!

In which year did England beat Germany 6-3 in Berlin, where before the match the England players were ordered to give the Nazi salute?
General Franco infamously supported which football team?
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Which legendary Turkish footballer was charged with insulting Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2016, and subsequently went into exile?
Source: Steindy
In 2017 Norwegian legend Ada Hegerberg refused to play for her national team for five years until men and women were treated equally as footballers. What club team does she play for?
Which world leader has a “dream” that their country will both qualify for, host and ultimately win the World Cup?
Sportswashing is…
From which country did a fund buy Newcastle FC in 2021 despite an outcry over their treatment of LGBTQi?
The 1978 FIFA World Cup was held in a country ruled by a military dictatorship. Which country?
Source: El Gráfico
In 2014, Reporters without Borders satirised which football club’s strip after it was sponsored by the government of Azerbaijan?
To limit any commercial damage, in 2019 Arsenal FC distanced themselves from comments regarding China’s persecution of Uighur Muslims by which of their own players?
Good luck!
You got {{userScore}} out of {{maxScore}} correct

Turkey: Solidarity with journalists falsely accused of leaking government emails


Six journalists — three in jail and three on bail — are facing lengthy jail terms in an indictment focusing on leaked emails from Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s energy minister and president Erdogan’s son-in-law. The first hearing in their case will be held on 24 October at Istanbul Çaglayan Courthouse.

Dawn raids were conducted on 25 December 2016 following an investigation into Albayrak’s leaked emails. Tunca Öğreten, a former editor of Diken, an opposition news portal in Turkey, Ömer Çelik, the news editor of the pro-Kurdish Dicle News Agency and Mahir Kanaat, an employee of BirGun, a left-wing opposition newspaper, were sent to prison without charges after 24 days in custody while Derya Okatan, Eray Sargın and Metin Yoksu were released on bail.

RedHack, a group of Marxist hackers, admitted responsibility for the cyber attack in September 2017 and added a number of Turkish journalists to a private Twitter direct messaging group without anyone’s consent. Once the minister’s emails were made public, journalists then reported about the leak, filtering the information based on the public’s right to know.

“State secrets” on a personal email account 

Based on the contents of the emails, Tunca Ogreten reported about Albayrak’s alleged executive role in an oil transportation company called PowerTrans (which still operates in the Kurdish Region of Iraq).

Long before the leaks, a suspected link between Albayrak and PowerTrans had already made the news after the Turkish government granted a special status to the company – an allegation officials strongly denied.

After three journalists – Celik, Kanaat and Ogreten – spent seven months in pretrial detention, without knowing what they have been charged with, prosecution finally filed an indictment in July, claiming that the information in Albayrak’s personal (Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo) email accounts could be considered as “state secrets depending on circumstances”.

The prosecution also accused all journalists of manipulating contents of the emails, without explaining how, and alleged that they tried “creating a negative perception for the failure of [Turkey’s] national energy policy”.

Ogreten appealed against claims about his alleged links with DHKP-C, an extreme leftist armed group, listed as a terror organisation in Turkey, however, the prosecutor dismissed his rejections and insisted on his guilt by association, arguing that RedHack was connected to DHKP-C, therefore, so was he.

Adding to the obscurity of charges, Ogreten is also accused of committing crimes on behalf of FETÖ/PDY, the pro-Islamic network led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen that Ankara recently named as a terror organisation.

The only evidence the prosecutor sets forth for this allegation is Ogreten’s previous work experience in Taraf, a pro-Gulen newspaper, where many of today’s popular pro-government columnists have also written for.

Taraf newspaper was among dozens of media outlets that the Turkish government shut down in statutory decrees, based on their alleged links with terror groups, including the Gulen organization, or FETO, that Ankara claims masterminded last year’s coup attempt.

Daily BirGün’s employee accused being a member of FETO

The indictment includes no reference about BirGün’s coverage of the RedHack leaks but makes a note that Mahir Kanaat, one of its employees, followed RedHack’s accounts on Twitter.

In an apparent ideological contradiction, Kanaat is also accused of being a member of the pro-Islamic FETO movement, based on two Word documents found on his mobile.

Both documents are copies of the official police investigation records about the 2013 graft probe that entangled several cabinet ministers and President Erdogan’s close relatives. The government accuses FETO-linked police having triggered the probe and prosecutors often present documents regarding the probe found in devices as a proof of suspects’ organizational links.

In Kanaat’s case, they pointed at the date on both documents, saying it showed a time before the probes were made public, leading to an accusation that the journalist had an early access to FETO-linked police documents through his organisational connections.

What is dismissed here, however, is that Word documents always come with an unchangeable creation date that keeps reappearing even if one downloaded them today. Therefore, an early access is a baseless accusation, used only to frame the journalist.

Furthermore, the prosecutor also turned a blind eye on BirGun’s highly consistent and critical coverage of Fethullah Gulen, the leader of FETO.

A mishmash of accusations 

Omer Celik, the Diyarbakir bureau chief and editor of the pro-Kurdish Dicle News Agency, is another journalist accused of spreading “propaganda of a terrorist organization” through his tweets.

His work relationship with DIHA, one of the outlets that were shut down by the government in a statutory decree for their alleged terror links, is the only evidence presented in the indictment.

Three other journalists, Okatan, Sargin and Yoksu who were released on bail, are also accused of spreading “propaganda for a terrorist organisation”.

Okatan and Sargin, two news editors, are accused of ‘guilt by association as tweets in question were sent on company accounts, not private accounts. Majority of the tweets that are quoted in relation to charges set against Yoksu are news updates.

The indictment that centres around the RedHack leaks of Berat Albayrak’s emails includes journalists who did not even report about the leak.

In a cocktail of accusations, all journalists are presented in alleged links with various terror organisations, in a wide range of ideologies from pro-Islamist FETO to Marxist-Leninist MLKP.

The indictment also accuses all six journalists of “intercepting and disrupting information systems, and destroying or altering data” without providing any explanation as to what or how exactly they have intercepted or altered the data.

A separate case for Deniz Yücel 

Although Deniz Yucel, the Turkey correspondent of Germany’s Die Welt, was issued an arrest warrant as part of the investigation looking into the RedHack leak, he was posed no questions about RedHack.

Yucel has been kept in solitary confinement for nearly a year, without any official charges. His reports about the Kurdish conflict were presented as the reason for his arrest in February.

The first hearing is on 24 October

Despite all apparent contradictions in the indictment, Mahir Kanaat, Omer Celik and Tunca Ogreten have been in jail for 296 as of 16 October 2017.

Six journalists, including those that were released on bail, will stand in court for the first time after almost a year.

There are more than 170 journalists in Turkish jails now. No matter how many cases that makes, we need your uninterrupted support in defending all. These hearings, as frequent as they are, should never be treated as commonplace.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1508492681714-5a9b25c8-f249-8″ taxonomies=”55″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

“No one – and especially heads of state – has a right not to be offended”

Jan Böhmermann

Jan Böhmermann

Index deplores the decision by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to authorise the prosecution of a German comedian for offending the president of Turkey.

Turkey requested that the German authorities prosecute Jan Böhmermann after the comedian read out a deliberately offensive poem about Turkey’s President Recep Tayip Erdogan. Under German law, it is a crime to insult foreign heads of state. Erdogan, who has cracked down heavily on critics of his regime – including journalists in the past 12 months – also launched a private lawsuit against Böhmermann.

“It is shocking that the head of state of one country should be able to demand the prosecution of a citizen in another country for speaking freely,” said Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg. “No one – and especially heads of state – has a right not to be offended and the implications for free expression worldwide if Mr Bohmermann were convicted are severe.”

Turkey’s crackdown on media freedom has been well-documented by Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project, which has recorded 214 reports about the country since May 2014. The increasingly autocratic Erdogan regime has recently Turkey’s courts to seize control of the Zaman Media Group.

Also: read British stand-up Shazia Mirza and Indonesian comedian Sakdiyah Ma ‘ruf discussing comedy and censorship for Index. Mirza hosted the Index on Censorship awards this week, and Ma ‘ruf was shortlisted for an award.