On February 6, at 4:17am, Murat Bayram awoke to a feeling that his room was shaking. He thought it would stop after a few seconds. He lives in an apartment in Diyarbakır, in southern Turkey; tremors are common there. But his walls continued to grind. For two whole minutes, the building shuddered. When a break finally came, he flew out of bed and ran downstairs. He stood on the street, half-dressed, with one sock on. He did not yet know that there had been a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, one that collapsed entire cities and caused the deaths of more than forty-three thousand people.
Bayram—who is thirty-five, with a beard, round cheeks, glasses, and a dandelion puff of hair—is a freelance journalist with fifteen years’ experience covering war and politics, lately for Botan International, a small, local outlet that he founded in partnership with Reporters Without Borders. He also reports on occasion as a stringer for the New York Times. His independence distinguishes him from most in Turkish media, which is largely controlled by the state and people close to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the country’s president. Since at least 2014, Erdoğan has been steadily increasing his influence on the press, through a combination of purchases and coercion. He has also granted “amnesties” to forgive thousands of buildings that were not up to code, and embarked on construction sprees that awarded generous contracts to members of his inner circle. In some cases, the connections between developers and the press have been immediate: a Turkish research group called Networks of Dispossession found that many of Erdoğan’s allies with ownership of Turkish TV channels also have controlling stakes in construction conglomerates. Pro-government networks failed to adequately investigate whether Erdoğan’s construction boom was safe. (“It was only commercial coverage,” Zeyno Üstün, one of the researchers, said.) But everyone in Turkey knew that they lived above shifting fault lines—and that it was a matter of when, not if, the next big one would come.
Shivering on the curb, Bayram pulled out his phone and opened WhatsApp. He had a deluge of messages in a chat group of local reporters, who said that they had not been able to reach relatives in Galeria—an enormous mall with shops and residences, the crown jewel of Diyarbakır. Bayram’s colleagues asked if anyone had made contact with someone inside. Bayram lived nearby, so he set off, still in his pajamas, to check out the scene.
When he arrived, he saw that the building’s center had vanished into a bowl of dust, concrete, and rebar. The apartments, which had been above and on either side of the shopping area, now sagged, the floors crushed into triangular layers. Wires that once held the building together now dangled uselessly in the air. Freezing rain laid a cover over everything. Bayram lifted his phone and began livestreaming.
The only people he saw were relatives of Galeria’s residents, those who came looking for their loved ones. They screamed into the building, “Is anyone alive?” They were answered by silence. Bayram kept streaming for three hours—and in that time, there were no ambulances, no police, no rescue workers. He never saw anyone pulled from Galeria. He found out later that more than a hundred people lost their lives under the rubble.
When a 7.4 magnitude earthquake hit Turkey on August 17, 1999, and poorly constructed buildings pancaked to the ground, killing as many as eighteen thousand people, the press reacted with outrage. A banner headline in Hürriyet, a major secular paper, read “Murderers”; a photograph on the front page showed a young girl lying prone under a massive concrete beam. Authorities were blamed for allowing shoddy construction to proliferate. But in 2023, a Hürriyet headline read, “One disaster after another” above a picture of a girl being rescued. A phrase dominated pro-government channels: “the disaster of the century.” Tuğrulcan Elmas, a Turkish postdoctoral scholar at Indiana University focused on disinformation, observed, “They are not emphasizing the negligence that made these buildings collapse.”
Howard Eissenstat, a scholar of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University, attributed the shift in coverage to heightened authoritarianism. “Journalists were arrested in those days, too,” he said, of the nineties. “You had a very corrupt—but multiparty—system. You didn’t have a lock hold over the media, so there was plenty of room for critical press.” That Erdoğan has now suppressed reporting that would hold him accountable for an earthquake’s devastation is ironic: his rise to power began when, in 1999, Turkey turned on the ruling party, whose failed disaster preparedness and response was a major factor. In the next election, held in 2002, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won an overwhelming majority by promising to do better.
Early on, the AKP introduced safer building codes. But campaign promises were soon overtaken by political expediency. Erdoğan tightened his grip on power. After a failed coup in 2013, he began purging officials he perceived as disloyal. That included leadership of Turkey’s disaster-relief team. In January of this year, he installed İsmail Palakoğlu, a religious scholar with no experience in emergency response, to run the department.
Even days after the earthquake, Bayram saw few search-and-rescue personnel. Many of those who did arrive came from independent charities, not Erdoğan’s government. When they came to a building, Bayram observed, members of a team would be surrounded by desperate family members, who clamored for them to go elsewhere and find their loved ones. “It was too late for thousands of people,” he said.
Some posted on social media, expressing anger about the lack of coordinated response; the government, in turn, shut down Twitter and TikTok. But survivors had also been using social media in critical early hours, as a means to share their location; the blackout quickly disrupted rescue efforts. Erdoğan soon appeared on TV, condemning the spread of “fake news and distortions” and threatening critics: “When the day comes, we will open the notebook we keep,” he said. According to a Turkish group called the Media and Law Studies Association, at least five journalists have been arrested since the earthquake, most on charges of spreading false information.
Many reporters struggled to find out what was happening. Where pro-government journalists could reliably gain access to destroyed buildings—thanks to a much-coveted press card—and film PR footage of successful rescues, the few remaining members of Turkey’s independent press have been left stranded outside, detained, or worse. While attempting to report, a freelancer named Rabia Çetin was attacked by guards. “Get out of here or we’ll lynch you,” she was told. None of the intimidation was legal, though as Eissenstat said, “Creating enough fear that self-censorship does your work for you is the goal of every authoritarian regime.” The day after Çetin was threatened, she decided to leave the city; she hopes to return soon. Bayram was lucky: through his work for the Times, he had a press card on hand—which he used to interview survivors and document the calls of people trapped, waiting to be saved.
Bayram stayed in Diyarbakır for three days, reporting and livestreaming. At night, he slept in a café crowded with people who could not return to their homes. Then he and some journalist friends piled into a car and headed to Adıyaman, a city at the heart of the earthquake zone, where more than twelve hundred buildings collapsed and six thousand people died.
As the group drove in, the air grew sharper and colder. White snowflakes fluttered down over the raw edges of broken concrete. Adıyaman looked as though it had been hit by a bomb. “It was just punishment,” Bayram said. When he entered buildings, he was hit with the sickly-sweet smell of decomposing bodies.
What struck Bayram, too, was how desperately survivors wanted to be interviewed. He had never experienced anything like it. He’d always known Turkish people to treat the media with trepidation and skepticism. Erdoğan blames the press for spreading lies to destabilize the state; saying the wrong thing to a journalist could land a source in jail. But in Adıyaman, people did not seem to care about the dangers; cameras represented a link to relatives—and potential rescuers—outside the city. “They were asking us why the Turkish news media were not there,” he said, referring to state-controlled outlets. Bayram was inundated. One person he interviewed was a mother who had heard her daughter screaming inside a building; she couldn’t go in and refused to leave the vicinity. Eventually, Bayram stopped asking questions, he just handed out his microphone.
Erdoğan has indicated that he may hold elections ahead of schedule, in May, which would make it difficult for those opposing him to organize. But for the first time in decades, it seems, he has a chance of losing. Bayram said that almost everyone he talked to in the earthquake zone was angry at the government. In the past, many of those areas consistently voted for the AKP, but experiencing isolation in the wake of disaster is stronger than any media narrative.
Bayram has returned to Diyarbakır, though he still hasn’t gone home, except to collect some books and the hard drive where his clips are stored. He spends his days out reporting and at the Botan International office, which he has now opened up to fellow local journalists, whose headquarters were destroyed. At night, he stays at a friend’s apartment on the fourth floor of a big building. It makes Bayram nervous; he hasn’t been able to sleep well. These days, he said, no one in Turkey likes to be on a high floor for too long.Pesha Magid is a CJR fellow.