Turkey: Stifling free expression during the COVID-19 pandemic

This virus won’t kill me; what will kill me is your system. 

Lorry driver Malik Yılmaz

Corona virus is devastating lives worldwide, whether because of the illness itself or the social and economic impact of lockdowns and other government measures. Everywhere, the poorest are being hit hardest. In Turkey, the authorities are making the situation worse by using the pandemic as an excuse to further stifle the right to freedom of expression. They are hounding social media users, journalists, doctors and others, and invoking legal provisions that criminalize dissent, in efforts to silence their critics.

Crackdown on social media

Around 54 million people use social media in Turkey, nearly two-thirds of the population. The country ranks seventh on the list of active Twitter users (13.6 million people) and tops the list for legal requests by the state to remove content.

Under the guise of combating ‘fake news’, ‘incitement’ or ‘spreading fear and panic’, the Turkish authorities are using criminal law provisions to target people who are discussing the pandemic online. Between 11 March, when the first positive case of the infection was declared, and 21 May, the Cyber Crimes Unit of the Interior Ministry alleged that 1,105 social media users had made propaganda for a terrorist organization, including by ‘sharing provocative Corona virus posts’. Of these, 510 were reportedly detained for questioning. In April, Amnesty International made a freedom of information request to the Ministries of Interior and Justice for further details of these COVID-19 related detentions, investigations and prosecutions. The request remained unanswered at the time of publishing.

When lorry driver Malik Yılmaz shared a TikTok video on 28 March with his 30 followers, he didn’t think his comments would go viral or that he would end up in police detention. In the video, he expressed his frustration with the ‘stay home’ message:

How would you suggest I do that? I am not retired or a civil servant, I am not rich. I am a worker, a lorry driver. If I don’t work, I don’t eat. I can’t pay my bills. Not being able to pay the bills is worse than death… But this virus won’t kill me, what will kill me is your system. 

Lorry driver Malik Yılmaz

His alleged crime was ‘inciting the public to break the law’. He was questioned three times, given a foreign travel ban and must now sign in at a police station weekly. As a result, he lost his job and fears he will be prosecuted under Article 217 of the penal code, punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment. He remains defiant. ‘I stand by what I said in the video… because it was true’

Media repression

Turkey has more journalists and media workers in prison than any other country. Longstanding media repression intensified after the 2016 attempted coup, with newspapers shut down and scores of journalists convicted under overly broad anti-terrorism laws. Now, the authorities are again targeting journalists. In the last three weeks of March alone, at least 12 journalists were detained by police for their reporting of the pandemic.

On 18 March, Güngör Arslan heard that his colleague, İsmet Ciğit, editor of Kocaeli Ses – a local newspaper in the western province of Kocaeli – had been arrested after an article on the newspaper’s website reported two coronavirus deaths in a local hospital. Arslan rushed to the police station to explain that as the editor of the website, he was responsible. Ciğit was released, Arslan was detained instead. After being questioned by the state prosecutor, he was also released. Speaking to Amnesty International a few weeks later, he said:

“[The state prosecutor] said to me “don’t write these articles”.’ He literally said that to me… I have no idea whether this will turn into a prosecution, but it was certainly intimidating.” Güngör Arslan

On 30 March, police questioned Diyarbakır-based journalist and human rights defender, Nurcan Baysal, about 10 of her social media posts, eight of which related to COVID-19, as well as two articles about the situation in Diyarbakır during the pandemic. She had to give a second statement the next day regarding accusations that she had ‘incited the public to enmity and hatred’, a crime under Article 216 punishable by one to three years in prison. In April, she was again summoned for questioning, this time over a 2016 tweet about Sur district. Since January 2018, Baysal has been detained three times and armed police have raided her house twice.

“In this country, I feel increasingly that we are writing on water. On the one hand, you feel the responsibility of being the voice of the voiceless; on the other, you see your writings change nothing; they only bring prosecution, detention, insult, threats, criminalisation is the cherry on top. (…) But there is (..) still solidarity, there is the responsibility of historical record, there is my ruined country, the children of Sur, there are still stars in the sky.”  Nurcan Baysal

Former Halk TV editor-in-chief Hakan Aygün was remanded in prison on 4 April after he implicitly criticized President Erdoğan (he did not name him) for sharing a bank account number for public donations to help deal with the pandemic. In four posts, Aygün compared IBAN (the International Bank Account Number shared by the President) with ‘iman’ (‘faith’ in Turkish), suggesting that those who claim to have faith are actually all about money. Aygün was charged with ‘inciting the public to enmity and hatred’ and ‘insulting the religious beliefs of a section of society’, both punishable by imprisonment. He was released on 6 May at the first hearing. His prosecution continues.

Doctors targeted

The Turkish Medical Association (TTB) is accustomed to being in the authorities’ line of fire. In January 2018, for instance, 11 members of its national council were detained for calling for Turkey’s military operation in Afrin to end. Since the start of the pandemic. the authorities have targeted individual doctors and the TTB for challenging and criticising government health policies.

Police have twice summoned psychiatrist Dr Özgür Deniz Değer, TTB Chair in Van, eastern Turkey, since the pandemic began. On 24 March, he was questioned about ‘threats to create fear and panic among the people’, a crime under Article 213 punishable by two to four years in prison. This related to an interview with the Mesopotamia News Agency in which he discussed the risks of COVID-19 spreading in prison and criticized the Health Ministry for not working with medical associations and not taking seriously the threat posed by the virus. On 4 May, Dr Değer was questioned about a tweet, which tagged the Minister of Health and the Ministry, about the deaths of health workers that were not identified as coronavirus-related. He said:

“Neither the interview, nor the tweet contains anything that could be remotely described as “threat to create fear and panic among the people”. Nevertheless, I am now more careful… There is self-censorship. ”  Dr Özgür Deniz Değer, Chair of the Turkish Medical Association

Dr Ömer Melik, Chair of the Urfa Medical Association, was first summoned in early April. ‘The police asked me, “Why are you sharing numbers on your Twitter account? Who gives you the numbers? I told them, “the practitioners who are dealing with the pandemic”.’ Dr Melik added, ‘apparently, we were spreading fear and panic. I asked the police officer “please show me how these posts are doing that!”

Subsequently, the medical association’s Twitter account raised concerns about the lack of personal protective equipment, highlighted the deaths of health workers, and shared a video about the situation in Urfa prisons. Dr Osman Yüksekyayla, general secretary of the medical association, and Dr Melik were detained and questioned on 27 April about dozens of these social media posts. They were released on bail, banned from foreign travel and required to sign in at a police station monthly. Dr Melik said:

“They told us “you can’t share these things”. We asked why. They said, “there is a government circular that states that only the Ministry can share information about the Corona-virus pandemic”. We asked to see the circular but were not shown anything.”

Another way is possible and necessary   

The spread of the deadly Corona-virus in Turkey is of indisputable public interest, making it crucial that people can exchange information and express dissent without fear of punishment. However, instead of respecting the right to freedom of expression, the government is cracking down on any criticism and imposing its message as the only one that can be heard. The wave of detentions in the early days of the pandemic taking hold in Turkey sent a very powerful message: the state would not allow questioning and open discussion of its strategy, leading to fear and self-censorship.

But the social media users, journalists, doctors and others who express different views are not undermining the fight against the virus. They are strengthening it. Indeed, it is through information-sharing, scrutiny of public decisions and open discussion that the pandemic can best be tackled – and lives saved.