The International Press Institute (IPI), the global network of editors, journalists, and media executives for press freedom, condemns a series of attacks on the press in Turkey around the country’s March 31 municipal elections. Authorities in Turkey must protect and defend the right of journalists to freely cover elections and their outcomes.

Journalists play a pivotal role in elections, ensuring that the public has access to independent information. Authorities must ensure that journalists are able to do their jobs freely and safely. We call upon the Turkish authorities to swiftly investigate the recent attacks against journalists in the country and to take necessary measures to prevent further violations.

In particular, journalists in eastern Turkey faced attacks and obstruction while covering public protests against a decision by electoral authorities blocking the newly elected mayor of Van, Abdullah Zeydan, from taking office. Several journalists were injured by plastic police bullets or water cannons, while others faced death threats or were harassed on social media for their reporting.

Kadir Cesur, a correspondent for Gazete Duvar, was injured by plastic bullets on two different occasions on March 31 while reporting on the DEM Party’s election result celebrations; and on April 2, during his coverage of the protests.

Jinnews correspondent Rabia Önver and KRT TV correspondent Umut Taştan were also injured by a plastic bullet fired by the police while covering the demonstrations in the provinces of Hakkari and Van.

During demonstrations in Van, a tear gas canister injured Rudaw cameraman Muhammed Şakir. In a separate incident, journalist Oktay Candemir’s phone was confiscated by the police while he was filming the protests. His footage was forcibly deleted.

Additionally, journalist Ruşen Takva was blasted with police water cannons while reporting live on protests in Van. Following the incident, Takva wrote on Twitter (X) that he is also being harassed online due to his journalistic activities. Journalist Ece Üner also received online death threats in response to her comments on the decision to revoke Zeydan’s mayoral mandate.

Another journalist, Medine Mamedoglu, was targeted on social media for her reporting on human rights violations during the protests, and was subsequently detained and physically assaulted by the police. She was later released after eight hours.

In another alarming incident, journalist Mimar Kaya was threatened with death while filming individuals allegedly related to the AKP Hakkari provincial chairman, who were reportedly using firearms against protesters in Hakkari. Kaya had to hide in a building to escape from the armed individuals who were chasing him.

The recent statements from the governorships of Van and Bitlis, which ban all demonstrations, open-air and indoor meetings, and restricts city exits and entrances for 15 days, is also a clear infringement on freedom of information and expression. Restrictions and attacks like these not only hinder journalists from performing their duties, but they also deprive citizens of their right to information, thereby weakening the democratic underpinnings of society.

Election-Triggered Violations: A Concerning Onset

In addition to the attacks and threats to journalist safety in relation to the Van protests, journalists and media across Turkey faced obstruction covering election day.

In the Sur district of Diyarbakır, journalists from Anadolu Agency, Demirören News Agency, and İhlas News Agency were shot at as they were covering a dispute at the local ballot box. Following this incident, the Southeastern Journalists’ Association (GGC) urgently called for the protection of journalists.

Journalist Kazım Kızıl stated on his Twitter (X) account that he was barred from filming inside a school in Hatay. Despite presenting his press card, the police prevented him from taking pictures, citing a lack of permission from the governorship.

In Eskişehir, Nebi Hatipoğlu, the AKP mayoral candidate, prevented the staff of Eskişehir News and Es TV from filming him at the exit of the polling station, instructing them to turn off their cameras.

Later in the evening, when the ANKA News Agency started to announce the election results to its subscribers, it experienced a heavy cyber attack on its digital systems. The majority of these cyber attacks against ANKA systems reportedly originated abroad. The agency’s digital infrastructure was hit by an unprecedented scale which surpassed 58 million DDoS attacks. However, the perpetrators were unable to breach ANKA’s firewall and there was no disruption in the flow of data.

In a surprise move, the Supreme Electoral Council imposed a restriction preventing journalists from filming the vote count. This restriction constitutes a direct affront to freedom of information and the public’s right to be informed. Article 82 of Turkey’s Election Law No. 298 stipulates that the head of the ballot box committee is responsible for maintaining order during the vote. This law also holds that no action should obstruct those with the right to observe the process. Based on this, journalists should not be prevented from filming the vote count at the polling stations, as their primary duty is to inform the public.

Moreover, the Center for Combating Disinformation, which is part of the Directorate of Communications, recently released a statement that is of particular concern. The Center categorized videos of mass voting by security officers relocated from other provinces, especially in the southeastern provinces, as disinformation. Following the adoption of the “Disinformation Law” in 2022, the presidency launched a number of  investigations against journalists whose news pieces were deemed “disinformation”, accusing them of “publicly spreading misleading information”. This resumes a worrying trend of using the disinformation law to target journalists, control the narrative, and suppress press freedom.

IPI’s statement is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries, and Ukraine. The project is co-funded by the European Commission.