Hit by coronavirus, Turkey continues targeting critical journalists and social media

Turkey - like much of the world - is suffering severely from the spread of the coronavirus. Turkey's coronavirus infection rate is rising the fastest in the world, according to an April 7 report from the Guardian

But despite the alarming death toll and deepening economic crisis, there appears to be one field in which the Turkish government never slows down: clamping down on critical journalists and social media users.

Those targeted by the government for their news reports, statements or social media posts are mostly accused of "causing fear and panic among the public”. This crime could result in a prison sentence of two to four years, according to the Turkish criminal code.

On March 18, two journalists in the city of Bartın - Ahmet Oktay and Eren Sarıkaya - were detained by police after reporting that a local doctor had been diagnosed with the coronavirus. The news was confirmed by the city's governor's office. But the journalists were accused of “causing fear and panic among the public”.

An investigation was also launched against Ahmet Kanbal, a reporter for Mezopotamya news agency, who faces the same charge. He had made a news report concerning a hospital in Mardin where children who had tested positive for the coronavirus had been kept in the same ward with those who had tested negative. Kanbal gave his statement to the police on April 1. 

Among other journalists who were called in for questioning over their social media posts or news reports on the coronavirus are Diyarbakır-based Ahval columnist Nurcan Baysal and Van-based journalist Oktay Candemir.

On April 3, Hakan Aygün, former chief editor of the opposition-linked Halk TV, was arrested on charges of "inciting hatred among people" and "insulting the Quran" after he had posted a tweet with wordplay over a verse in the Quran which criticised Turkey’s national donation campaign, announced by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Aygün has since been incarcerated in Muğla prison.

Social media users have also faced increasing pressure during the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Interior Ministry, from March 11 to March 20 alone, 64 social media users were detained by the police for their "baseless and provocative posts regarding the coronavirus". The ministry announced that detentions would continue.

"Turkey's crackdown on media - both conventional and social media - has been snowballing for years," Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told Ahval.

The judiciary subjects social media users and the media to legal intimidation for raising issues or expressing opinions that differ from the officially approved narrative, she said.

“They intimidated several journalists who do not want to walk the government's line on the COVID-19 and thus signalled to many others that that kind of behaviour won't be tolerated and those violating those unspoken rules will be punished,” she told Ahval.

Since 2014, Turkey has been by far the country that has issued the most requests to Twitter for the removal of content. Sometimes, Twitter granted those requests and blocked or removed the content, but most of the time they did not. 

Now, Turkey has drafted a new law as part of measures to contain the coronavirus which would require social media, like Twitter, to have representative offices inside Turkey. “What is it if not an attempt to control social media even more?” Said asked.

Said also criticised legislation drafted by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for a proposed prison amnesty. While the legislation could see around one third of the country’s nearly 300,000 inmates freed in order to ease the strain on overcrowded prisons and contain the spread of the coronavirus, the draft law exempts journalists and other critics of the government - jailed for links to what Turkey calls "terrorist organisations" - from release.

Turkey has been one of the world's worst jailers of journalists for many years. There are dozens of journalists in jail, some of them are in their 70s such as Ahmet Altan. Many, including younger prisoners, suffer from multiple health issues. 

“They will let many criminals go free, but will keep innocent journalists behind bars. This is unacceptable and has to change,” Said noted. “The best way to combat the coronavirus is through informed minds, and the worst strategy is to try to hide the truth and punish those who speak it,” she said.

Meanwhile, even those who have recently lost loved ones have been subject to detention and intimidation by the authorities. Three Gaziantep residents who filmed and posted a social media video about the alleged digging of mass graves for local COVID-19 victims were detained and interrogated. 

One of the defendants is Saime Dilsizoğlu, who posted a social media video in which said that her mother-in-law had died from the coronavirus on March 27 and was buried in a mass grave dug exclusively for the victims of COVID-19. The claims were denied by the city's governor's office, and the authorities placed two defendants under house arrest on March 29 on the grounds that they had "caused fear and panic among the people". An investigation is ongoing.

Nate Schenkkan, the Director for Special Research at Freedom House, told Ahval that the Turkish government consistently uses its investigatory and prosecutorial powers to silence critics, and that the coronavirus crisis is no exception. 

“The targeting of individuals for comments on social media, or even for comments they made in professional settings that other people posted on social media, has a chilling effect,” he said. “This is dangerous at a time when transparency, accountability, and accurate information-sharing is a matter of urgent public health.”

Schenkkan added: “These incidents are a continuation of existing policies that the Turkish government has been intensifying for many years. Authoritarianism is not rising in Turkey. It has risen.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.