The International Press Institute (IPI), the global network of editors, journalists, and media executives for press freedom, condemns the decision by Turkey’s broadcast regulator to fine three broadcasters over their critical coverage of the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria that left 41,000 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. Turkish authorities must stop punishing independent media for their reporting, especially during a moment of crisis where the free flow of information is indispensable.

On February 22, 2023, the Radio and Television High Council (RTÜK) fined broadcasters Halk TV, TELE 1, and FOX TV and issued broadcast bans on several of their programmes that reported on the lack of efficient government response to the earthquakes in southeast Turkey.

İlhan Taşçı, a member of RTÜK nominated by the Turkish opposition, said that Halk TV had been fined for airing an interview with Ahmet Şık, a former journalist and now an MP of the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP). The broadcaster was fined five percent of its annual commercial income and hit with a five-time broadcast ban. TELE 1 received the same penalty after two hosts of its “18 Minutes” programme – TELE 1 owner and editor-in-chief Merdan Yanardağ and academic Emre Kongar – criticized the government’s right-wing policies.

Yanardağ told IPI that RTÜK cited his criticism of pardons for illegal construction as justification for the fine. “The target of these penalties is obviously independent journalism”, he said. “Using pressure and censorship, they are trying to silence any voice that differs from their own. Of course, these penalties are also related to the upcoming elections. The government wants to go to the elections with a silenced media.”

Halk TV received a three-percent monetary fine for its special broadcast on the earthquakes “Büyük Felaket Özel Yayın” and FOX TV was similarly given a three percent fine over for its “Orta Safya” (Middle Page) program. Fines were reported to have been justified on the grounds that the coverage “prevented public opinion from being formed freely”, a phrase suggesting that the news outlets were spreading “false information”.

“RTÜK is an institution that carries out regulatory activities on behalf of the public in the field of media and therefore it must take autonomous decisions. But once again this democratic principle was violated. RTÜK’s representatives appointed by the ruling parties punished television channels again for mentioning the deficiencies of the government in their reports and comments”, Emre Kizilkaya, the chair of IPI’s Turkey National Committee and a vice chair of IPI’s Executive Board said. “This is a kind of punishment not seen in any democratic country. We condemn it.”

On February 6, the day the earthquakes occurred, RTÜK chair Ebubekir Şahin warned journalists and broadcasters that they had a legal obligation “not to share information which harms the search and rescue efforts in the earthquake area and causes panic and disinformation.” Following RTÜK’s warning, access to Twitter and TikTok was restricted via bandwidth throttling on February 8 for around six hours by Turkey’s Information and Communications Technology Authority (BTK), despite the fact that the social media platforms were being heavily used in the first 48 hours to report the location of people under the rubble to aid in rescue efforts. After heavy public backlash, the bandwidth throttling was lifted. The systematic crackdown on free access to reliable and fact-based information and public debate grew further on February 21 after BTK blocked access to EkşiSözlük, Turkey’s largest forum website.

RTÜK, along with other state regulatory bodies, has been serving as one of the key censorship tools of the government for a long time and had dished out various penalties to independent media for their coverage of previous natural disasters in Turkey.