European Federation of Journalists

Turkey: Crackdown on critical journalists intensified during wildfire crisis

Credits: Canva

The Turkish government’s continuous crackdown on press freedom in Turkey is highly disturbing. Just in the last week, amidst tremendous wildfires raging across Turkey, journalists critical of the government were denied access to press briefings, media outlets received fines for their reporting on the wildfires and a TV crew was attacked during a live broadcast. The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) calls on the Turkish government to finally stop actively hindering and imprisoning media workers in their profession.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been facing increasing criticism over the apparent poor response and inadequate preparedness to handle the large-scale wildfires that have been scorching across Turkey since 28 July. At least nine people have died and enormous swathes of forestland have been destroyed.

In response, the government, government-controlled bodies and government supporters have intensified the repression of critical journalists. Media organisations, journalists’ unions and associations as well as platforms such as Mapping Media Freedom or Expression Interrupted have been monitoring and condemning these attacks against media workers in Turkey. Below, a non-exhaustive overview of the most recent attacks against press freedom:

  • RTÜK, Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council, first issued a written warning to critical TV networks over their coverage of the wildfires on 3 August. It threatened them with sanctions should they not include footage of successfully extinguished fires. On 11 August, RTÜK went on to fine six TV networks, RT, Fox TV, Habertürk, Halk TV, TR 35, TELE 1. RTÜK has been accused of becoming increasingly conservative under the ruling government and acting arbitrarily when issuing fines against programs critical of the government.

The Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS) tweeted: “Transformed into a censorship institution, RTÜK imposed fines on channels that covered the fires. The mentality that prevents the public from learning the truth and tries to censor the fire instead of extinguishing it will lose and journalism will win. The press is free and cannot be censored! #JournalismUnblocked”

  • On 5 August, a Halk TV crew was attacked during a live broadcast reporting on the wildfires in the affected town of Marmaris. A group of five assaulters verbally and physically attacked the network crew as well as its program guests. One attacker also attempted to attach the crew using a broken glass bottle. The broadcast had to be paused temporarily. All five attackers were taken into custody by the police but were released shortly after.
  •  Reporters from FOX, Halk TV, ReutersEuronews and AFP were denied access to a press briefing on 5 August at the site of a power plant in Muğla province, which was damaged during the wildfires. While selected, government-friendly media outlets were granted access, these critical media were not listed among the accredited outlets.
  • On 9 August 2021, Sarya Toprak, a reporter for the daily BirGün critical of the government, was prevented from filming by Murat Kurum, the Minister of Environment and Urbanisation. Kurum had met with locals from the fire-hit province of Muğla to talk about the damage inflicted by the wildfires. When noticing the journalist recording these conversations, Kurum said: “You can’t shoot here even if you are a journalist!” The police also told her to turn her camera off and forcibly removed her after not complying.
  • Besides the crackdown on critical journalists in relation to the wildfires, the highly controversial circular issued in April by the General Directorate of Security emerged as an additional obstacle to journalistic work. On 3 August, Uğur Şahin, the News Director of daily BirGün, was detained by the police while he was trying to film an incident of male violence against a woman in Şişli, İstanbul. Citing the circular, the police told Şahin that recording was “prohibited”. The journalist was released following the completion of procedures at the police station.

Ricardo Gutiérrez, the EFJ General Secretary, reacted: “These latest developments in the area of press freedom in Turkey are extremely worrisome. Press freedom and the public’s right to information are core rights in a democracy. Rather than protecting journalists and enabling a free press, the Turkish government is actively working to undermine critical journalism and intimidate media workers. We urge them to release all political prisoners and stop their attacks. Journalism is not a crime!”

According to TGS, 38 journalists are still in prison. On 11 August 2021, Expression Interrupted listed 63 media workers who are currently either in pre-trial detention or serving a sentence.