The Media Today

The earthquake and the press in Turkey

February 10, 2023
The Kingmaker  Turkey’s press was never free, but under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, journalists find it virtually impossible to do their work. Photo: Murad Sezer / Reuters Pictures.

The scale of the humanitarian disaster in Turkey and Syria grows by the hour. Now the world’s attention is on rescuing those who can be saved and grieving the thousands of people who have died.

But in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is standing for reelection in May, has used the earthquake as a fresh pretext to  crack down on critical commentary and media coverage. On Tuesday, according to the Washington Post’s Today’s Worldview newsletter, “a visibly angry” Erdoğan characterized criticism of the disaster response as “fake news and distortions,” and warned of future reprisals against those who “cause social chaos.” Soon after, prosecutors in Istanbul launched a criminal investigation into two members of the press. And journalists in the crisis zone have reported being detained and blocked from covering rescue efforts, even as state media have been allowed to carry on.

The regime has also cracked down on dissent on social media. According to CNN, on Wednesday, the Turkish Police Force arrested five people and detained eighteen for sharing “provocative posts.” Around the same time, NetBlocks, a site that monitors internet outages globally, reported that access to Twitter had been restricted in the country; it was later restored, but only after government officials met with representatives from Twitter and reminded them, as one minister put it, of the platform’s “responsibilities…to our country during this devastating disaster.” The restrictions were widely criticized—not least because people in Turkey have used Twitter to coordinate aid efforts and, in some cases, call for help.

Erdoğan’s political life arose, in part, from the last comparably deadly earthquake to hit the country, near Istanbul in 1999, when seventeen thousand people died and many more were injured. That disaster, the Post reports, drew attention to an inept government response and helped usher in a new movement that Erdoğan led.

This week’s earthquake offers a painful reprise. According to a report from the Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, retired generals have started to complain publicly that troops haven’t been trained for disaster response and that the Interior Ministry, the agency responsible for coordinating relief efforts, is overwhelmed. “Social media is filled with desperate calls for aid,” according to the report. “Turkish citizens are naturally wondering why the full strength of the much vaunted state is not put into action.”

Turkey’s fate won’t be helped by the fact that the domestic press has been hobbled under Erdoğan’s reign. Accountability journalism and watchdog reporting, which could examine questions about the government’s response—and why building codes weren’t enforced during a corrupt construction boom—are increasingly rare in Turkey. Outlets that do attempt to call attention to government failings are muzzled, or worse.

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In the summer of 2019, Suzy Hansen wrote about Turkey and the press for a special edition of CJR, on global journalism. She focused her reporting on the Demirörens—the most prominent family in Turkish media, which had been likened to the Murdoch clan—and on how Erdoğan had wrested control of journalism in the country:

Around 2008, after Erdoğan won his second term, the Turkish media became the first sacrificial victim of his deepening authoritarianism. In the years since, the most vocal and talented journalists at these papers have been put on trial, thrown in jail, or chased out of the country. (The Committee to Protect Journalists found that 69 Turkish journalists were jailed in 2018, but previous years had seen that number shoot into the hundreds.) Reporters have been hounded and harassed on social media; sometimes they have been arrested for their tweets. They have been forced to censor themselves. They have been left careerless. They have feared for their lives. And they have watched their profession become a farce.

The denuding of a national press is a threat to democracy and democratic ideals. That puts lives at risk, as questions that need answering go unasked and government accountability disappears. We are seeing that reality unfold before our eyes, among the rubble and heartbreak in Turkey. You can read Hansen’s piece here.

Pesha Magid contributed to this analysis.

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Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.