Turkey: Uphold human rights during earthquake response

Mehmet Kacmaz / GETTY IMAGES EUROPE / Getty Images via AFP

Geneva, Paris, Ankara, Istanbul, 10 February 2023 - On 7 February 2023, in the wake of two powerful earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria leaving thousands of people dead, injured and displaced, President Erdoğan enacted emergency rule in the affected areas. Our organisations express their deepest solidarity with those affected and call on the authorities to ensure full respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the aftermath of the earthquake, and to repeal the state of emergency rule while resorting to proportionate measures available under existing laws for emergency response that are fully compliant with international standards.

On 6 February 2023, two earthquakes centred in Kahramanmaraş struck Turkey and Syria, killing and injuring thousands of people and destroying entire villages and cities, leaving survivors displaced and without shelter under harsh winter conditions. At the time of publication, official sources put the number of deaths at 20,000, which is expected to rise. Thousands, including members and executives of the Human Rights Association (IHD), are still trapped under wreck, and awaiting rescue amidst poor coordination and lack of equipment, resources, clean drinking water or heating in the affected regions. Our organisations express their deepest condolences, sympathy, and solidarity to everyone affected by the earthquake and remain in contact with human rights defenders and civil society in the region to identify needs and mobilise support.

Following the catastrophe, on 7 February 2023, President Erdoğan declared a state of emergency in the ten cities affected by the earthquake until May 7, 2023, which came into force on 8 February 2023. The emergency rule was enacted despite the various powers granted to the executive by other legislation in Turkey concerning disaster response, such as the Law No. 7269 on Precautions to be Taken due to Disaster Affecting Public Life and Assistance to be Provided, and the broad, unchecked authority that the presidential system confers upon the president. The state of emergency appears therefore unnecessary and disproportionate in terms of its length to emergency response, and the additional powers it grants to the president carry the risk of weaponisation against civil society and anyone critical of the government’s crisis management, as well as disruption of humanitarian aid and human rights work in affected regions by civil society.

The state of emergency rule grants the executive the authority to further limit movement and communication in the cities affected by the earthquake, with criminal provisions of the State of Emergency Law No. 2935 dated 1983 foreseeing prison terms for those “spreading or broadcasting fake, exaggerated rumours and news with special intent to cause public panic and turmoil”. When announcing the state of emergency, President Erdoğan also referenced “fake news and distortions”, saying that “Our prosecutors are identifying those resorting to social chaos through inhumane methods and are swiftly undertaking necessary procedures.”

Reports of abusive practices curtailing freedom of speech and media freedom that go beyond any reasonable response to the earthquake are already surfacing. On the day of the earthquake, the Radio and Television Supreme Council President Ebubekir Şahin tweeted that “no media institution has the right to make demoralising broadcasts” and that “[the Council] cannot ignore institutions that have manipulative broadcasts in bad faith.” The following day, Evrensel correspondent Volkan Pekal was detained in Adana for “recording without a permission” due to an alleged verbal instruction to ban footage by the governor, and later released [1]. The same day, police prevented journalists in Diyarbakır from reporting on rescue efforts on the grounds that a state of emergency was declared, and also threatened to detain earthquake survivors who were speaking to journalists. On February 7, two journalists, Merdan Yanardağ and Enver Aysever, as well as a political scientist, Özgün Emre Koç, faced criminal investigations for inciting hatred and hostility among the public due to criticism of the government’s earthquake response, with Koç detained and later released.

On 8 February 2023, Mesopotamia Agency correspondent Mahmut Altıntaş and Jinnews correspondent Sema Çağlak were detained in Urfa while taking photographs of destroyed buildings on the grounds that they do not have press cards given by the Communication Presidency and later released. Later the same day, Mesopotamia Agency correspondent Mehmet Güleş and a search and rescue volunteer he was interviewing were both detained in Diyarbakır after the volunteer criticised insufficient state response to the earthquake. They were both released the next day under judicial control and charged with publicly spreading misleading information under the disinformation law, even though the interview was not published. The Security General Directorate announced on February 9 that 274 people posting “provocative messages on social media that aim to create fear and panic among citizens” were identified, 31 people were detained and nine were arrested. Meanwhile, the government restricted access to Twitter, used widely to coordinate rescue and aid, on February 8 afternoon and lifted the restriction early February 9 after a meeting with Twitter executives where the government made demands concerning “combatting disinformation”. As Twitter was down, media reported that three prisoners were killed on February 7 in the T-Type Prison in earthquake-hit Hatay following a violently-suppressed riot that erupted because prisoners’ demands for transfer to a safe location and communication with their families were not met. The Directorate General of Prisons and Detention Houses of the Ministry of Justice confirmed the killing of three prisoners the next day, stating there had been attempted escapes in both Hatay and the Maraş Türkoğlu No. 1 L Type Prison, with no deaths reported in Maraş. Despite lack of official confirmation, the Human Rights Association documented reports of injuries in Malatya prisons, where prisoners are not allowed communication with their families.

The state of emergency is also impacting rescue efforts and humanitarian aid, as the government has politicised cooperation with local stakeholders despite insufficient centralised efforts. Humanitarian aid by independent civil society organisations, professional organisations, citizens’ initiatives and district mayorships run by the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and Republican People’s Party (CHP) were prevented from reaching affected areas by governors under the orders of the central government.

The decision takes place against the backdrop of a declining rule of law, shrinking civic spaceand track record of abuse of emergency legislation in 2016-2018, leading to widespread violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms and harassment against human rights defenders, journalists and dissidents. Several restrictive policies and practices were made permanent after the state of emergency was lifted in 2018. The crackdown on civil society intensified after the adoption of the Law No. 7262 in 2020, which has been used to unlawfully target civil society organisations and, most recently, of the “disinformation law” in October 2022, introducing a prison term for the offense of “publicly spreading misleading information”. Freedom of speech and media freedom organisations have condemned the law, the vagueness of which paves the way for arbitrariness and weaponisation against any government critic.

Moreover, the state of emergency is announced in the period leading up to parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey unofficially announced to take place on May 14, 2023. The 2018 parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey held under the country-wide state of emergency rule were marked with the silencing of opposition candidates and independent media, restricting voters and the opposition from fully exercising their right to participate in public affairs and affecting citizens’ right to free and fair elections.

Our organisations urge the authorities in Turkey to repeal the state of emergency rule, to resort to powers conferred under existing legislation designed specifically for disaster response and to ensure that any measure taken in this context is strictly necessary and proportionate to address the current crisis and fully compliant with Turkey’s international human rights obligations. We further call upon the international community to closely monitor the developments in Turkey and the impact these measures might have on human rights and fundamental freedoms, particularly in the context of the upcoming elections.

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