After toughly fought elections, Turkey’s strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came out narrowly on top as president, despite concerns about soaring inflation and his government’s handling of the aftermath of devastating earthquakes. The media, which is largely controlled by the president and his supporters, played a key role in his re-election, with access to critical voices on digital and social media also regularly restricted.
In the run-up to elections, the country was still coming to terms with the impact of February’s devastating earthquakes that claimed more than 50,000 lives. Social media and messaging apps have played a crucial role in making the cries for help of the earthquake victims – as well as their friends and families – heard both from beneath the rubble and in the ensuing recovery period.
In 2023, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) described the government as pursuing a policy of ‘near systematic censorship on the internet’, and following the earthquake, internet users were subject to major access restrictions which were also criticised for interfering with rescue operations and relief efforts. On the third day of the earthquake, Twitter was temporarily blocked while many survivors trapped under the rubble were still actively tweeting details about their location, health condition, and urgent needs. The Deputy Transportation and Infrastructure Minister tweeted from his account to report on a formal meeting with Twitter to remind the platform of its responsibilities and to request their co-operation in tackling disinformation and fake accounts, and preventing what he termed threats to public order from the circulation of sensitive content and information about earthquake casualties and survivors.
The second ban, introduced on 21 February 2023 and which remains in effect (in April 2023), targeted Ekşi Sözlük, a popular online discussion forum that relies on user contributions on user-initiated topics, allegedly for entries about the earthquake.1
These bans related to the earthquake follow existing clampdowns. In June 2022, when Voice of America and Deutsche Welle’s Turkish-language websites were blocked on the grounds they had not applied for broadcast licences as requested by the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), RTÜK suggested in a public statement that they would request the termination of the website blocks once the brands complied with Turkish laws; Deutsche Welle representatives reported considering the licensing as a form of government censorship on their editorial content.2
In the first half of 2022, government proposed measures against so-called disinformation provoked vigorous debates on their implications for internet users’ freedom of expression. Then, in October 2022, the parliament ratified the ‘Disinformation Bill’ which defines ‘publicly spreading disinformation’ as a criminal offence, despite concerns openly expressed by the critics, press freedom watchdogs, and the Council of Europe.3 The controversial law is very broadly drawn and suggests that those who intentionally publish fake news or misleading information that spreads panic or endangers security forces or the overall health of the Turkish society could be jailed for up to three years. In addition, prescribed maximum sentences can be increased by up to 50% if the alleged act of disinformation is carried out using an anonymous account or as part of an organisation’s activities.
In the month after the law coming into force, a bomb explosion killing six people in the historic İstiklal Street in İstanbul was followed by an immediate government broadcast ban, making it very difficult for mass media outlets to share up-to-date details about the incident. As anonymous footage with graphic content from the scene (along with some from other unconnected incidents) had already started to circulate on social media platforms and messaging apps, the government limited the bandwidth of internet within two hours of the attack, which made it difficult for citizens to access sources other than those from the already restricted mass media.
With the country ranked 165th out of 180 countries reviewed by RSF in 2023 and with 90% of the national media reported to be under government control, the public has turned increasingly to critical or independent media outlets according to RSF. These include traditional media brands such as Fox TV, Halk TV, Cumhuriyet, and Sözcü, as well as international websites. Recently, broadcasts by Halk TV, Fox TV, and TELE1 received up to 5% administrative fines by RTÜK for reasons ranging from ‘praising a criminal’, for displaying a book by Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-chair of People's Democratic Party (HDP) who has been under arrest since 2016, to ‘failing to be objective’ or ‘making humiliating remarks’ in covering the post-quake response efforts.4
Senior Research Associate, Reuters Institute
While online and social media sources combined are preferred for news, print and television news continue to decline. YouTube (45%) and Instagram (40%) are the main social networks for news and Twitter (26%) lags behind Facebook (33%) and WhatsApp (28%).
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Overall trust in news remains stable at 35%. With most of the media estimated by RSF to be under government control, brand-level trust is heavily influenced by political orientation. Fox TV, with the largest offline reach, is the most trusted brand according to our respondents and another brand known for its oppositional stance, Cumhuriyet, scores high on trust.