Last week, as COVID-19 infections spiked in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan devoted time to filing a criminal complaint against Fatih Portakal, a prominent news anchor on the popular Fox TV channel, for tweeting about the country’s economic woes in the face of the pandemic. The outrageous move was the most high-profile yet in the Turkish government’s effort to silence criticism as it struggles to manage its worsening public health crisis.
Seeking to control the information space is nothing new for Erdoğan. One main tactic has been to dominate the mainstream media. To this end, Erdoğan’s family and friends have bought up more than 90 percent of Turkey’s media outlets; Fox TV is a rare exception. Another tactic is to launch investigations against journalists and social-media users under various pretexts—most commonly for “supporting terrorism.” Erdoğan himself is notorious for filing thousands of complaints against journalists, politicians, and ordinary citizens for “insulting the president.” In the case of Portakal, the president accused him of “manipulating the public.” The vague definitions of these “crimes” in Turkish law allow the authorities to harass and even imprison anyone who promotes “undesirable” information or opinion. Indeed, even before the current crisis, Turkey topped the world in jailing journalists—more than 100 are behind bars today.
But since the coronavirus began to spread last month, leading to some 78,000 infections and 1,700 deaths, the government’s crackdown on freedom of expression has reached new heights.
With pro-Erdoğan media failing to provide transparent information on infection figures, many Turkish citizens are increasingly turning to social media and messaging apps like WhatsApp to share alternative information. This upsurge in digital content—and criticism of the state’s haphazard response to the crisis—appears to have provoked the intensified censorship.
Over the last three weeks, prosecutors have launched criminal proceedings against 303 people for their social media posts about the deadly virus. Among those targeted are medical professionals whose posts inform citizens about basic health precautions—and warn against the inadequacy of state-recommended measures, such as using high-alcohol Turkish cologne to disinfect hands. In addition, the government is investigating 5,603 social media accounts, of which it identified some 700 that allegedly “spread misinformation” about the virus.
Intensifying the crackdown, meanwhile, on Monday Ankara passed a stringent new law requiring foreign social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook to appoint a local representative in Turkey responsible for blocking access to accounts or removing content per Turkish court orders. Human Rights Watch called the law an attempt to “strongarm” companies “to submit to Turkish government control or censorship.”
This latest assault on freedom of expression indicates that Erdoğan is struggling to manage the coronavirus crisis. In the face of past national disasters, such as the 2014 Soma mine accident that killed 301 workers, the government typically has resorted to attacking its critics, rather than revising its bad policies. Today, as the fast-spreading pandemic strains Turkey’s health and economy, information control appears once again to be Erdoğan’s preferred response.