Turkish journalists were detained for reporting on the earthquake

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Freelance journalist Mir Ali Kocher was 200 miles from the epicenter when the deadly earthquake hit Turkey on February 6. Grabbing a camera and microphone, he drove to the affected region to interview survivors.

He shared the stories of survivors and rescuers on Twitter, and is now under investigation on suspicion of spreading “fake news” and could face up to three years in prison.

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

Press freedom groups say dozens more have been detained, harassed or prevented from reporting.

At least 50,000 people have died in the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.

Turkish authorities have not commented on the detention.

“I couldn’t hold back the tears”

On the night of the earthquake, Mr. Kocher, who is Kurdish and works for pro-opposition news sites such as Bianet and Duvar, was smoking on his balcony in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır when his two dogs suddenly started barking.

He later recalled how they barked just like that in 2020, seconds before a smaller earthquake hit eastern Turkey.

“I felt myself shaking. I could feel the house shaking, I could feel the TV shaking,” says Mr. Kocher. He hid under the dining room table with the dogs and then ran outside.

Mr. Kocher left Diyarbakir and went to the city of Gaziantep. He was shocked by the scenes of destruction and victims of freezing temperatures in cities near the epicenter of the earthquake.

At least 3,000 earthquake victims died in Gaziantep.

“When I was holding the microphone, behind the camera or in front of the camera, I couldn’t hold back the tears,” Mr. Kocher recalled.

“Provocateurs”

image captionPresident Erdogan has promised to rebuild cities

Mr Kocher was moved by the influx of volunteers and rescue teams from western Turkey and shared their stories on Twitter. Some of the survivors told him they had not received help for several days. Similar complaints were made in the pro-opposition media.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told people he would rebuild their cities while visiting earthquake-hit areas. But he also warned that those spreading “fake news” and “causing social chaos” would be prosecuted, calling them “provocateurs”.

Mr. Kocer says that while he was reporting from the earthquake-hit region, Diyarbakır police left a note in his apartment ordering him to visit the police station and give a statement.

At the station, he was told that he was being investigated under the recently passed disinformation law. According to him, the police questioned him about his reports from the epicenter of the earthquake and accused him of spreading false information.

Turkey’s new law was adopted in October. It criminalized the public dissemination of misinformation and gave the state much broader powers to control news sites and social media.

The Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s legal watchdog, said the law would interfere with freedom of speech.

Opposition parties call it the “censorship law”.

“They don’t like critics”

Mr Kocher insists he was meticulous in his work and interviewed all parties, from survivors to the police, gendarmerie and rescue workers. “I didn’t share information without careful research and analysis,” he says.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called the investigation against Mr. Kocher “absurd” and called on the authorities to end it.

At least three journalists face criminal charges, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a human rights group.

Merdan Yanardag and Enver Aysever are well-known Istanbul-based political commentators with large social media followings. Both criticized the government’s rescue efforts. They are both under investigation along with Mehmet Gulesh, who, like Mr. Kocer, is based in Diyarbakir. He was detained on suspicion of “inciting hatred” for an interview with a volunteer who criticized the government’s rescue efforts, and then released, RSF said.

Agony in Diyarbakır after the earthquake
image captionAgony in Diyarbakır after the earthquake

The number of other journalists under investigation is unknown. On Tuesday, police said they had detained 134 people for “provocative posts” and arrested 25 of them, but did not release their identities. Some of those detained may have spread falsehoods, including that Afghan migrants were scavenging in destroyed neighborhoods.

But critics say the crackdown has gone far beyond spreading harmful misinformation.

“The government is trying to hide information coming from the earthquake zone,” said Yaman Akdeniz, a cyber law expert who teaches at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.

The arrests came after Turkey’s presidential communications director warned against “deadly disinformation” threatening rescue efforts. The authority also launched a smartphone app called the Misinformation Reporting Service, which encourages people to report manipulative posts about the earthquake.

“Every time when [турецьких] officials and the government are being criticized, they don’t like it,” says Arzu Geibulla, an Istanbul-based journalist who covers digital authoritarianism and censorship.

“But this time they might be more vocal.”

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