In the early morning hours of February 6, 2023, Turkey and northern Syria were shaken by two major earthquakes in quick succession. Eleven cities in Southern and Eastern Anatolia and Syrian Kurdistan, home to around 3.5 million people, were severely affected by the earthquakes. The fact that the disaster struck in the early hours of the morning, when everyone was asleep in their homes and beds, led to the high number of people trapped under the rubble. Tens of thousands of buildings collapsed at the time of the earthquake and many more in the hours that followed in aftershocks.
Countless people lost their lives in the most critical first 48 hours after the earthquake due to the delay in the response of the Turkish state authorities; the failure to deliver aid and rescue teams in time; the lack of coordination between existing teams; the collapse of the mobile phone infrastructure; and the ban on military participation in search and rescue operations – despite the presence of two large military units in the earthquake zone. The last of these was largely due to political Islamist dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s paranoia about a military coup. Eyewitnesses said that almost all of those who died in the first two days froze to death, not because they were trapped under rubble, but because of the region’s brutal winter conditions.
The government continues to conceal the true death toll more than a month after the disaster. While civilian experts and NGOs put the real death toll at around 350,000-400,000, the government’s figure is only 47,000. The Turkish government is also known to have concealed death tolls during the COVID-19 pandemic.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was absent from the media for the first two days, but on the second day of the earthquake, he appeared live on television and threatened those who criticized the lack of response and inadequacy of state institutions. Erdoğan said, “We are taking note of all those who criticize the government. We will use these notes when the time comes.” In the same broadcast, Erdoğan also announced that he had issued a State of Emergency in the earthquake zone, giving the government extraordinary and undemocratic powers.
After the dictator Erdoğan’s threats, state institutions, which had been slow to respond to the disaster victims, moved swiftly to silence protesters and critics. First, access to Twitter was blocked across the country. Users were forced to connect to the social network using a VPN. However, especially in the earthquake zone, where non-governmental organizations and solidarity efforts were organized through Twitter, the ban was met with huge reactions and was lifted half a day later. On the same day, Ekşi Sözlük, a Reddit-like forum and one of the most visited websites in the country, along with more than 300 social media accounts and websites, almost all of them belonging to the opposition, were also shut down. These websites are still closed. In order to prevent journalists from recording the bad images in the earthquake zone and reporting the truth, both Turkish and foreign journalists were required to apply to a government agency and obtain an “accreditation card.” Of course, these accreditations were granted completely arbitrarily. Mezopotamya Agency (MA) reporter Mahmut Altıntaş and JINNEWS reporter Sema Çağlak were detained in Urfa while trying to cover the debris in the city. MA reporter Mehmet Güleş was reportedly detained along with the person he was interviewing after the volunteer criticized the search and rescue operations. The detained journalists were accused of “forgery” or “spreading false information” based on statements made by news sources that have not yet been published.
Twelve days after the earthquake, the “witch hunt” was extended to social media. Police officials announced that 771 accounts were identified, 127 people were detained, and 24 people were arrested for making provocative posts about the earthquake on social media platforms, mainly Twitter and Facebook.
While the Turkish government under the dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is working to cover up many scandals related to the earthquake disaster, it has also started a propaganda campaign that could only have been seen in Hitler’s Germany. Presidential Communications Advisor Fahrettin Altun, known as the Goebbels of dictator Erdogan, and his army of social media trolls have launched a campaign called “Disaster of the Century.” In this campaign, an impressive and professional video clip was produced with misleading technical information, using the massive size of the earthquake as an excuse for the state’s inability and incapacity to respond to the events.
A Twitter account with many followers was purchased and renamed “Disaster of the Century.” The video was shared from this account and started to spread virally by pro-government troll accounts. In addition to the video, the social media account also shared infographics comparing the earthquake with other earthquakes around the world and containing misleading information. Upon intense reactions, the video was deleted from Asrın Felaketi’s Twitter, Youtube and Instagram accounts. Subsequently, the Twitter and Youtube accounts were also closed. An independent media outlet revealed that the account and the video were created and managed by a company very close to the government.
One of the main legal bases for all this to happen is the law known as the “Censorship Law”, which was enacted by the dictator Erdoğan and his government partner, the Turkish racist party MHP, a few months before the earthquake. The law, which the government calls the “Anti-Disinformation Law” but is known as the “Censorship Law” by the public, allows the government to imprison the owners of social media accounts and websites that post “misleading information.” Moreover, the anonymity of the Internet is seen as an “aggravating factor” in this law. This means that when a user who tweets criticizing the government uses a pseudonym (as most Twitter users do) rather than their real name and surname, the prison sentence is doubled. The law also authorizes the police and courts to request the IP information and metadata of social media users from the relevant platforms. If Twitter, for example, fails to provide Turkish authorities with a user’s IP information, phone number, e-mail address, etc., it can be subject to sanctions ranging from fines and access bans to bans on advertising in Turkey.