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Turkish journalists arrested over earthquake reports

Turkish journalists arrested over earthquake reports

Turkish journalists arrested over earthquake reports

Turkish journalists arrested over earthquake reports

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  • Mir Ali Koçer publicized survivor and rescuer stories on Twitter.
  • He is now being investigated for creating “false news” and could face up to three years in prison.
  • He is one of at least four journalists being probed for reporting or commenting on the earthquake.
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Mir Ali Koçer, a freelance journalist, was 200 miles from the epicenter when Turkey was struck by a catastrophic earthquake on February 6. He drove down to the impacted area with his camera and microphone in hand to interview survivors.

He publicized survivor and rescuer stories on Twitter and is now being investigated for creating “false news” and could face up to three years in prison.

He is one of at least four journalists being probed for reporting or commenting on the earthquake.

Hundreds more, according to press freedom organizations, have been arrested, harassed, or prohibited from reporting.

Earthquakes in both Turkey and Syria killed at least 50,000 people.

The Turkish authorities have made no statement on the detentions.

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I couldn’t hold back my tears

Mr. Koçer, who is Kurdish and contributes to pro-opposition news sites such as Bianet and Duvar, was smoking on his balcony in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir on the night of the earthquake when his two dogs began barking.

He recalls them barking exactly like that in 2020, seconds before a minor earthquake shook eastern Turkey.

“I felt I was shaking. I felt the house shaking, I felt the TV shaking,” says Mr. Koçer. He hid under a dinner table with the dogs and then rushed outside.

Mr. Koçer left Diyarbakir and drove to the city of Gaziantep. He was shocked by scenes of destruction and victims enduring freezing temperatures in towns near the very epicenter of the quake.

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At least 3,000 of the earthquake’s victims died in Gaziantep.

“When holding the microphone, behind the camera, or in front of the camera, I could not hold back my tears,” Mr. Koçer recalls.

Provocateurs

The surge of volunteers and rescue teams from Western Turkey moved Mr. Koçer, and he shared their stories on Twitter. Several of the survivors told him they had gone days without receiving assistance. Similar allegations were made by pro-opposition news outlets.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told people in earthquake-affected areas that he would reconstruct their cities. But he also warned that individuals propagating “fake news” and “causing social disorder” would be jailed, labeling them “provocateurs”.

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Mr. Koçer claims that while he was reporting from the earthquake-affected zone, Diyarbakir police placed a message at his residence telling him to go to the police station and make a statement.

He was informed at the station that he was being probed under a freshly enacted misinformation statute. He claimed that the police questioned him about his reporting from the epicenter of the earthquake and accused him of spreading fake information.

Turkey’s new law went into effect in October. It criminalized public deception and allowed the state considerably broader control over news outlets and social media.

The Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s legal watchdog, warned the bill would limit freedom of expression.

It is referred to as a “censorship law” by opposition parties.

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‘They don’t like criticism’

Mr. Koçer says that he was diligent in his job, interviewing everyone from survivors to police, gendarmes, and rescue workers. “I did not release anything without first conducting extensive research and analysis,” he says.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the probe into Mr. Koçer as “absurd” and demanded authorities discontinue it.

At least three more journalists are facing criminal accusations, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an advocacy group.

Merdan Yanarda and Enver Aysever are well-known political analysts in Istanbul with substantial social media followings. Both have criticized the government’s efforts to save the country. Both are being investigated, as is Mehmet Güleş, who, like Mr Koçer, is located in Diyarbakir. He was arrested on accusations of “inciting hatred” after questioning a volunteer who was critical of him.

It is unknown how many additional journalists are being investigated. The police stated on Tuesday that they detained 134 people for “provocative posts” and arrested 25 of them, although their identities were not released. Some of those jailed may have been spreading lies, such as the one that Afghan migrants were scavenging in devastated neighborhoods.

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But, critics claim that the crackdown has gone well beyond those propagating dangerous misinformation.

“The government is trying to suppress information coming from the quake zone,” says cyber rights expert Yaman Akdeniz who teaches at the Istanbul Bilgi University.

The arrests came after Turkey’s presidential communications director warned against “lethal disinformation” jeopardizing the rescue efforts. The directorate also rolled out a smartphone app called “Disinformation Reporting Service” encouraging people to report manipulative posts about the quake.

“Any time [Turkish] officials and the government are being criticized, they don’t like it,” says Arzu Geybulla, a journalist in Istanbul covering digital authoritarianism and censorship.

“But this time they are perhaps more vocal.”

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