Journalists in Turkey face harassment as they report on earthquake devastation

While national government has allowed access for many, reporters have experienced pressure in the field from authorities on the ground as well as local militias and even bereft residents

 A view shows semi collapsed buildings in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Hatay, Turkey February 15, 2023. (photo credit: CLODAGH KILCOYNE/REUTERS)
A view shows semi collapsed buildings in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Hatay, Turkey February 15, 2023.

Journalists across Turkey’s earthquake region have been facing harassment from authorities during their coverage of the disaster, press freedom organizations are warning.

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Murat Yildiz, a Turkish journalist, said he has faced threats to his work and his security from authorities.

“They were constantly harassing us, following us,” he told The Media Line. “They come and check your notes… they want to check your photos.”

Yildiz said some of the harassment has also come from groups outside the government.

 A child walks on the street surrounded by rubble following the earthquake in Hatay, Turkey (credit: REUTERS) A child walks on the street surrounded by rubble following the earthquake in Hatay, Turkey (credit: REUTERS)

He said he was hounded by a militia while trying to film newly dug graves, as well as by civilians who may have been trying to rob or possibly kill him.

Gürkan Özturan, with the European Centre for Press & Media Freedom, said there have been violent attacks against journalists covering the earthquake, with 19 journalists in eight different locations being attacked on February 11 alone.

He said the police, gendarmerie, village guards, and civilians or people who appear to be civilians are behind most of the attacks.

Security has become a key concern for those in the earthquake region, for residents, aid workers and journalists alike

There have been reports of looting, and the German and Austrian rescue teams suspended work due to safety concerns that eventually led to an increased presence of security forces.

Yildiz said that the bolstered security presence has helped decrease crime, but risks still remain at night, when there is little illumination, and in less heavily patrolled areas.

“Security forces, especially the [gendarmerie] are doing their best but they are mismanaged and the lack of electricity ties their hands at night,” he said.

It was not just journalists who were independent or critical of the government who were at risk, according to Yildiz.

He said he saw a photographer with the state-run Anadolu news agency, which is strongly pro-government, also get stopped by the same militia from taking photos.

Yildiz pointed to events when reporters with outlets deemed pro-government were harassed by victims’ angry families. 

“They also had troubles when covering stories,” he said.

While journalists in Turkey have faced pressure and prosecution for years, the earthquake has also seen the government increase accessibility for them at the same time that Ankara has appealed for international help in dealing with the disaster.

New visa regulations for journalists were suspended and accreditation was readily given to many, although Reporters Without Borders reported that journalists had been arrested or denied entry to Turkey altogether.

However, there have also been instances when the national government intervened to resolve situations after journalists were harassed by authorities.

“I cannot say we faced a systematic crackdown on media professionals since many problems have been resolved with the support of communication officials and some order has been spread on the ground in order to facilitate the work of journalists,” said Erol Önderoğlu, the Turkey representative of Reporters Without Borders. 

While there has been increased access for many journalists to report on the earthquake, some members of the press in Turkey still face dire risks, Önderoğlu himself is set to go on trial in the country in April for charges that include the creation of “terrorist propaganda.”  

Freelance journalist Mir Ali Koçer has also been accused of spreading disinformation in regards to videos he shared about the earthquake region and faces three years in prison, according to Reporters Without Borders.Önderoğlu warned that violations of press freedom continue, however, which may suggest the government will eventually increase its already tight control of the media. This is especially the case as the country is set to gear up for national elections in the spring, although there are suggestions they could be delayed.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government cracked down on the independent media following a failed 2016 coup attempt, shuttering news outlets, detaining reporters and removing the credentials of hundreds of journalists.  

Days after the earthquake, the Twitter social media platform temporarily became inaccessible in Turkey, drawing criticism from many who were desperately trying to find out information about the impact region.

The government held a meeting with representatives from Twitter and said that an agreement had been reached to cooperate on combating disinformation.

According to Önderoğlu, the incident showed the government the risks it could face if it tries to curtail information, but warned the situation for the media could get worse as the earthquake’s international coverage decreases.

In terms of earthquake coverage, Özturan agreed that the national government had helped facilitate their work, such as by increasing access to government press conferences.

“They have made things easier for the media to cover this major disaster but in the meantime this did not prevent the attacks from taking place,” he said.

Özturan said that the real level of pressure that journalists are facing is being underestimated because some have chosen not to speak out about it as the country struggles to cope with the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquakes.

“They did not want to become the news because the news is the tragedy that’s being suffered by millions of people,” he said.