Images from the devastating earthquake, which struck Turkey and Syria in February 2023, Source: Depositphotos

Fighting "Disinformation": A Disguise for Censorship

Fighting "Disinformation": A Disguise for Censorship

A case in point from Turkey shows how media freedom can be threatened under the pretence of good deeds

The devastating earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria on 6 February 2023 resulted in significant loss of life and destruction, prompting international response and rescue efforts. Yet, local and international media faced repeated obstruction by Turkish authorities, including threats and physical confrontations.

The Chairman of the Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), Ebubekir Şahin, warned journalists against sharing information that could hinder search and rescue efforts. President Recep Erdogan also indirectly cautioned the media against causing chaos through "fake news" and distortions, vowing to take action against those who sought to polarize the nation. These warnings had a chilling effect on journalists, leading to self-censorship.

Moreover, several journalists reported being denied access to affected areas, and social media platforms, including Twitter and TikTok, were blocked. It was also noticed that pro-government media outlets received preferential treatment, further eroding the impartiality of coverage. Journalists even reported death threats from government supporters.

How could that be, especially in a moment of need such as that one?

The AKP Era: Promises and Betrayals

Actually, the initial years of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule, in the early 2000s, witnessed liberal reforms and a relative easing of media restrictions, aimed at curbing the military's influence.

However, Erdogan's stance on media freedom underwent a dramatic shift over time. He consolidated control over the media by influencing businessmen to create media outlets aligned with his government. Legal mechanisms were established to interpret criticism of the government as treason, thereby silencing dissent.

A report by the DİSK Basın-İş Journalist Union revealed that during Erdogan's two-decade rule, nearly 900 journalists have been detained, and opposition media has faced fines and forced closures. Independent print media also struggled due to ad revenue bans, leading to mass closures.

Media Freedom in Crisis

The events following the February 2023 earthquakes underscore the critical role of a free and independent media during crises. Objective and ethical reporting stands as a cornerstone of a well-functioning democracy, playing a pivotal role in both informing the public and holding authorities accountable.

This becomes especially pertinent in light of the earthquake response where the government's stringent control over the media was seemingly motivated by a concerted effort to portray President Erdogan in a favourable light in the upcoming presidential elections.

The Erdoğan government already had a history of employing the guise of fighting disinformation to suppress critical media outlets and restrict press freedom. This pattern is eerily reminiscent of the regime's knack for twisting terms and policies championed by Western democracies to serve its undemocratic objectives.

A clear parallel emerges when we consider the past manipulation of the "fight against terrorism" label, which was used to target political adversaries and paint anyone who dissented as a terrorist, far from the standard definition of the term.

In the current context, the administration labels media outlets critical of its rule as disseminators of false information. This subtle manipulation by co-opting a buzzword and turning it upside down not only undermines the core principles of democratic governance but also jeopardizes the essential role of an independent press in holding those in power accountable.

The Imperative of Objective and Ethical Reporting

When terms like ‘disinformation’ and ‘fake news’ are co-opted for nefarious means, the aim is to strip them of their triggering power and make them essentially meaningless in the minds of a confused public.

It's crucial to discern that the fight against disinformation, rather than upholding its noble cause, may inadvertently serve as a veiled pretext for restricting media freedom and stifling dissent. In the hands of an illiberal regime, this noble pursuit can become a dubious narrative, posing a potential threat to the underpinnings of democracy.

This kind of threat is present in all democratic societies. It serves to remember President Donald Trump’s use of the term “fake news” to describe everything and anything that he read in the media and didn’t like.

In times of crisis, it becomes even more crucial to ensure that journalism remains unfettered and that journalists are not silenced or threatened for doing their job. The erosion of media freedom in Turkey raises questions about the fairness of democratic processes and the need for robust, independent media to safeguard the public's right to information.

This article is part of Read Twice – an EU-funded project, coordinated by Euro Advance Association that targets young people and aims to counter disinformation and fake news by enhancing their skills to assess critically information, identify vicious and harmful media content and distinguish between facts and opinions, thus improving their media literacy competences.

The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of its author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Union nor of TheMayor.EU.



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