Journalists covering the devastating earthquake that struck Turkey have reported being harassed, detained, or obstructed in their work.
As the combined death toll for the powerful earthquake that struck cities in Turkey and Northern Syria reached more than 41,000 people, media rights organizations called on Turkish authorities to ensure that journalists are allowed to report freely.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has documented at least four journalists who were detained, three who were called in for police questioning, and six others who say they were harassed or otherwise blocked from reporting.
Access to social media was also initially restricted, and police in the first few days of the disaster detained more than a dozen people over their social media posts.
Turkey’s directorate of communications denied to VOA that media were facing obstacles to covering the humanitarian disaster.
“We reject the claim that any journalists are being investigated or have been detained over their coverage,” read a comment sent via email and attributed to a senior Turkish official.
“Journalists from more than fifty countries, including more than one thousand visiting journalists, have been working in Türkiye without hindrance,” the email said, using the Erdogan government’s preferred spelling for Turkey.
Journalists alleged to be 'provoking animosity'
CPJ, however, has reported cases of local journalists being questioned or investigated for allegedly “provoking animosity and hatred” or spreading “misinformation.”
In some instances, the journalists had interviewed people who were critical of the government’s response to the disaster or had attempted to film survivors.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week described criticism of Ankara’s response to the earthquake as “false news” and “distortions.”
In an interview with VOA, CPJ’s Turkey representative Ozgur Ogret said the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) appears to be trying to control the narrative.
“One of the unchanging policies of the AKP government is to control the current debate or agenda in the country,” said Ogret. “We have seen that this reflex is also present in the earthquake. In devastated cities, it is unusual for the security forces to be concerned about whether the government or the state is praised or not while people are in trouble.”
Watchdog sees signs of attempts to control media
The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also has seen signs of authorities trying to “steer journalism in the field,” said its Turkey representative Erol Onderoglu.
“First of all, we observe that a very heavy, very strong earthquake caught both the citizens and the state unprepared,” he told VOA. “However, we are aware that media representatives or public institutions undertake a task with great difficulties.”
Onderoglu said RSF has observed an increase in attempts to interfere with broadcasts from international media, physical attacks against journalists, or efforts to keep media at a distance over a lack of accreditation.
While some cases involve residents, RSF also has seen incidents involving local police, the broadcast regulator RTÜK and other public institutions, Onderoglu said.
“All these interventions are now reaching a point where they are intolerable,” he said.
“We clearly see problems such as restraining the critical view, postponing any criticism, and threatening the journalists,” he said. “No one is responsible for shaping the editorial view of journalists. They do not have such a right.”
Both RSF and CPJ have called on Turkish authorities to allow the media to report without fear of harassment or legal action.
Access and accreditation issues
Mucahit Ceylan, president of the Southeast Journalists Association, told VOA that some reporters were having issues with access and accreditation while reporting from some of the worst-hit areas.
Ceylan, who has been covering the rescue efforts for The Associated Press, said he had no problem working in Pazarcık and Gaziantep but that he and others ran into issues in Diyarbakır, where a lot of international media are gathering.
Journalists are being issued temporary accreditation badges and must show them at each section of rubble, Ceylan said. But in some cases, journalists are being turned away.
“You want to shoot in the wreckage; [police] said that there is a shooting ban,” Ceylan said, adding that when that happens, he explains the media are doing a public duty.
The journalist said when he called the governor's press relations manager in Diyarbakir to raise the issue, he was told that no such bans were in place and that the office would look into it.
Alongside the death toll, millions of survivors are in need of humanitarian aid, and infrastructure is extensively damaged.
Erdogan quickly called a state of emergency, but a report at the Washington-based think tank Middle East Institute said a decision to restrict access to Twitter slowed civil society groups who were using the platform to coordinate rescue efforts.
In a February 13 article, Howard Eissenstat, a nonresident scholar with the institute’s Turkey program, said some experts and scientists interviewed by pro-government media later said they had been misquoted to present a more favorable review of the rescue response.
VOA’s Turkish Service contributed to this report.