A news blackout in the aftermath of a tragic event, when information is needed the most, is unthinkable in most Western-style democracies. It doesn’t seem to make sense to sweep under the carpet the extent of a catastrophe involving the public.
But in Turkey news bans are now an occurrence as frequent as terrorist attacks: a common joke is that “news bans arrive before ambulances,” a dark comment on a pattern that stretches from the attack in Suruç in July 2015 to the one in Kızılay, Ankara in March 2016, and now to the suicide bombings at Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport.
In the aftermath of the horrific attack at Istanbul’s main airport, blamed on the so-called Islamic State, observers expecting a gag order were not disappointed.
First the Prime Minister’s office banned “any image of the explosion, emergency response, of victims’ bodies or any ‘exaggerated narrative,’” before a prosecutor in Istanbul requested and promptly obtained to ban on the publication of news on the attack on “any written, visual or social media.”
Ase Tokmak, an Istanbul-based attorney, explained how such a ban is put in place. “The ban was possible thanks to the law regulating the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), a media watchdog administration, which states in article 7 that ‘access to news can be banned if there is reason to protect the national security and there is a risk of deterioration of public order’” Tomak told Independent Turkey.
“But we should keep in mind that these should be extraordinary exceptions, because freedom of expression and unhindered access to information are basic human rights, protected by the Turkish Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.”
If the aim of the prosecutor was only to protect “National Security and public order”, it appears strange that he also requested a ban on “any criticism of investigation.” Such a ban was granted in the aftermath of the October Ankara bombing but this time, following Tuesday’s attack in Istanbul, it has not been approved by the court.
With Bloomberg’s Turkey Bureau Chief Benjamin Harvey provocatively calling this Turkey’s “gag reflex”, both the legitimacy and the effectiveness of the bans are called into question.
They have been widely ignored by mainstream media in the past, but nonetheless, the bans are said to have a considerable effect on the information reaching the average Turkish citizen.
“On the Turkish mainstream media, bans are very effective,” claims Efe Kerem Sözeri, a researcher studying new media activism based at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Sözeri was one of the first Twitter users to share the full text of the gag order.
“I have quoted a tweet comparing CNN International and three Turkish TV channels: CNN was still broadcasting live updates from the Istanbul attack while Turkish TVs were on live Ramadan specials. TRT, the public broadcaster was interviewing Yiğit Bulut, Erdoğan’s top economy advisor, and kept on the interview well after the news broke. Bulut even criticized other channels for reporting about the blasts.”
Bulut was not the only one. Several officials slammed media outlets that ran any information about the attack for “showing Turkey in a bad light.” Aside from any political motivations or propaganda intentions, this is not an uncommon attitude in Turkey, where most people still get their news from local TV channels that are careful to toe the government line. Coverage of such an attack can therefore be interpreted as bad publicity rather than simply news reporting.
A passenger of an international flight, who landed at Atatürk airport in the immediate aftermath of the attack, said the passengers were kept on the plane for five hours with minimal information; when they finally reached the terminal they began taking photos of the mayhem. “Immediately a private security officer told me to stop, then another reached at me and asked me show her my photos, and made me delete them,” she told Independent Turkey, adding that she was scolded for “showing Turkey in a bad way.” The passenger wishes to remain anonymous because she has been advised that she could be sued for telling her story.
“For the majority of Turkish people who still receive news via TV and newspapers, the gag order is very effective,” Sözeri insists. “But make no mistake: gag orders are not about suppressing news, it is to prevent journalists from reporting freely.” It is worth noting that the news ban is not absolute: “The gag orders also make this clear, news outlets are free to report officials’ statements. Therefore, the gag order becomes a tool of how Turkish government wants the news to be reported.”
Özgür Öğret, Turkey representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, agrees. “The government wants a media which totally parrots their agenda,” he says, arguing that the media is required in effect to report on the successes of the AKP governance according to the AKP itself.
“Of course, that can hardly be the truth and the truth has been the enemy of authoritarian governments everywhere in history,” said Öğret.
The effects of controlling news flow have become increasingly evident recently: after the bloody Ankara bombing on October 10, 2015, at the height of a heated electoral campaign, all clues pointed to IS, but the news ban prevented any debate around the veracity of that belief.
“The government claimed it was ‘a PKK/DHKP-C and DAESH cooperation,’ so people blamed Kurdish politics, boosting nationalistic votes. Gag orders, then, were effective to support the government claim and suppress the real story – that would damage the government,” suggests Sözeri. The same trend is apparent after the Istanbul attack, with the authorities praising security forces’ responses to the attack, and the gag order preventing questions from being raised.
Social media evades the ban
Debate and controversy flourish on social media however, which is always alive with debate and speculation, as well false reports. And social media sites, the modern way to receive news, were the immediate target after the initial gag order.
Unlike the aftermath of previous attacks, when Twitter and Facebook were blocked by court order, this time there was no official ban. Yet for many users, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, were not accessible after the attack.
“It was not actually a block, it was throttling. That is, slowing down access so much that social media is unusable for many people,” explains Sözeri. “It is never official, but @TurkeyBlocks, a group of censorship researchers who monitors Turkish access, noticed it and reported it.”
Unlike with gag orders on the traditional media, there is no legal framework to allow officials to block access to social media.
“There is a bunch of restrictions regulated by a variety of laws that can ban access to news on a variety of grounds, from protecting the private life of citizens to ensuring the proper functioning of the judiciary. Removal of news online is regulated by Internet Law’s eighth and ninth articles,” attorney Tokmak says.
However, these articles do not make specific allowances for controlling social media – suggesting that what Sözeri termed “throttling” may in fact be illegal.
“There is no such a thing in any of the laws as ‘slowing down the Internet connection to particular websites such as Facebook or Twitter.’ It’s against the basic human rights and it also against the consumer law,” said Tokmak.
Turkey has a long history of judicial conflicts with the European Court of Human Rights regarding freedom of expression.
“Abuse of news bans is likely a breach of Article 10, which includes the right to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers,” stresses Tokmak. “The Turkish Constitution’s Article 26 states the same thing.”
But in the current atmosphere, the Turkish media has little chance to appeal or resist gag orders.
“Turkish Internet providers operate in quasi-monopoly status, with 80 percent of fiber optics network run by the Türk Telekom,” remarks Sözeri. “The government’s pressure on ISPs is very strong anyway, [companies] have to comply or they will face fines, and worse, they will be disregarded on government bids.”
Öğret believes that Turkish TV stations are in an even more difficult position. “They are under the heavy hand of the state watchdog, RTÜK. Beside serious fines, they even risk losing their licenses. Since TV remains the number one source for receiving news in Turkey, this is a serious problem in terms of the people’s right to be informed.”
With limited access to international news, regular gag orders on any major tragedy, social media blocks and a tight government control over information, Turkish citizens are thus prevented from freely debating the reasons for these attacks, from shaping their opinion about each event beyond the official explanations, and from holding those responsible to account.
The rationale behind these news bans, which appeared so counterproductive, now makes perfect political sense.