Several journalists in Turkey are currently facing investigations and potential legal consequences for their reporting on the devastating earthquake that struck the country on February 6.
Potential jail time
Mir Ali Koçer, a freelance journalist who interviewed survivors and shared their stories on Twitter, is now being investigated on charges of spreading “fake news” and could face up to three years in jail. He is one of at least four journalists who are being investigated for their reporting or commentary on the earthquake, while press freedom groups claim that many more have been detained, harassed, or prevented from reporting.
The earthquake, which resulted in the deaths of at least 50,000 people in both Turkey and Syria, had a significant impact on the affected regions. Mir Ali Koçer, a Kurdish journalist who contributes to pro-opposition news sites, was in the city of Diyarbakir, around 200 miles away from the epicenter, when the earthquake struck.
Moved by the devastation, he drove to the affected area to document the stories of survivors and rescue workers. However, his reporting drew the attention of authorities, who accuse him of spreading false information.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the affected areas and promised to rebuild the cities. However, he also warned that individuals spreading “fake news” and causing social chaos would face prosecution, referring to them as “provocateurs.”
Mir Ali Koçer claims that while he was reporting from the earthquake-stricken region, the police left a note at his apartment, instructing him to visit the police station and give a statement. He was subsequently questioned about his reporting and accused of disseminating false information.
The investigation against Mir Ali Koçer has been widely criticized by press freedom organizations. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called it “absurd” and urged the authorities to drop the charges. At least three more journalists, including prominent political commentators Merdan Yanardağ and Enver Aysever, are also facing criminal charges for criticizing the government’s rescue efforts. Mehmet Güleş, another journalist based in Diyarbakir, was detained on suspicion of “inciting hatred” after interviewing a volunteer critical of the government’s rescue effort.
While the exact number of journalists under investigation remains unclear, the police recently announced the detention of 134 people over “provocative posts,” with 25 of them being arrested. Critics argue that the government’s clampdown extends beyond harmful disinformation and aims to suppress information coming from the earthquake-stricken areas. The government’s strong reaction to criticism is seen by some as an attempt to control the narrative and prevent negative coverage.
Turkey introduced a disinformation law in October, which criminalizes the public spread of false information and grants broader powers to the state in controlling news sites and social media. The Venice Commission, a legal watchdog of the Council of Europe, has expressed concerns that the law infringes upon freedom of expression. Opposition parties have referred to it as a form of censorship.
As the investigations against journalists continue, press freedom advocates and international organizations are calling on the Turkish authorities to respect freedom of the press and drop the charges.