Turkey: Access to information must be embedded in the earthquake response

Turkey: Access to information must be embedded in the earthquake response - Transparency

Portrait of Kurdish journalist Mir Ali Koçer after the February 2023 Turkey/Syria earthquakes. Photo courtesy of Mir Ali Koçer's personal archive.

The response of the Turkish authorities to the devastating earthquakes of 6 February and their aftermath shows little or no understanding of the importance of transparency and free flow of information in relief, reconstruction, and rehabilitation efforts. ARTICLE 19 reminds the Turkish Government that all its actions and reconstruction efforts must be grounded in respect for the right to access to information, transparency, and accountability. As independent media play a crucial role in ensuring the success of all reconstruction and prevention programmes, the Turkish authorities must cease all their attacks against journalists, media workers, and other members of civil society who are covering or commenting on the response to the earthquake.

The two earthquakes of 6 February 2023 in Turkey, with magnitudes of 7.8 and 7.5 on the Richter scale, were the deadliest in the country’s modern history and caused massive destruction. More than 50,000 people were killed and more than 9 million people were directly impacted. Tens of thousands were left injured, homeless, and severely traumatised. In the days and weeks following the disaster, authorities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and others have been assessing the extent of the damage, burying the dead, and providing basic services like water, shelter, and food to the survivors. With the rescue efforts now over, there is a pressing need to rebuild the housing and infrastructure destroyed in the earthquake, with calls that the reconstruction must ensure the highest standards of seismic safety. Turkey has also received international aid to support reconstruction efforts. 

Following this disaster, the Turkish authorities have repeatedly obstructed access to information related to the earthquake and its aftermath and impeded reporting by local, national, and international media. On 8 February, allegedly per government orders, Twitter and TikTok were blocked on major Turkish mobile and internet providers in attempts to censor criticism of the government’s response to the earthquake on social media. According to the reports of the Directorate of Turkish National Police, hundreds of people were arrested for criticising the government’s preparedness and its response to the earthquake and over 1,000 social media accounts were blocked through ‘virtual patrol’. 

ARTICLE 19 is extremely concerned about these developments. It is clear that the Turkish authorities have so far placed an insufficient weight on the importance of free flow of information in the response to the earthquake and its aftermath. As a result, the earthquake disaster has also been an information disaster. 

We therefore remind the Turkish authorities that the right to information and transparency take on particular importance in the context of large-scale natural disasters like the February earthquakes. Free flow of information and freedom of expression are not luxuries: they underpin all human rights and are central to human development. The Turkish Government and the international community have an obligation to ensure that these are given due priority in assistance and relief efforts and in reconstruction and rehabilitation processes targeting areas affected by the earthquake. 

In particular, we call on the Turkish Government and intergovernmental organisations assisting Turkey in the post-earthquake reconstruction to ensure the following.

Ensure survivors’ and the public’s right to information

The importance of information to survivors is immediately apparent. Respect for human rights and restoration of human dignity mandate the dissemination of appropriate and accurate information and the encouragement of activities geared towards the effective and meaningful participation and consultation of disaster-affected populations. 

Following the earthquakes, survivors have a wide range of key information needs whose fulfilment is critical to avoiding further loss of life or disease. The public has the right to know information regarding, but not limited to, the below issues:

  • those who are dead or presumed to be dead and the whereabouts of missing relatives or friends; 
  • the provision of food, water, shelter, medical, reproductive health, and other basic services; 
  • plans for relief, reconstruction, and rehabilitation; 
  • specific protection measures, including those aimed at protecting women and children victims of sexual and domestic violence, widows, orphans, disabled people, and so on; 
  • the policies, procedures, and criteria for assistance used in the relief assistance programmes and by relief agencies; and 
  • existing governmental social welfare schemes, as the situations of many people might have changed as a result of the earthquake.

The extent to which relief efforts are effective is closely linked to ensuring survivors gain access to such key information.

Receiving such information for survivors does not only satisfy a need: it is a fundamental right of survivors. It is also crucial to the realisation of other rights, including the right to family life or the right to health, for example. The provision of this information is also essential to the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. As more than 1.7 million Syrian refugees have been living in earthquake affected regions, equal attention must be given to the presentation of the information and ensuring it is available in various languages.

ARTICLE 19 calls on Turkish authorities to:

  • Make all possible efforts to ensure that survivors have access to key information including information on the provision of food, water, shelter, and medical, and other services in all phases of relief, reconstruction, and rehabilitation. This information should be available in various languages spoken in Turkey.
  • Create information centres to collect information from the grassroots level and inform government efforts in affected regions and districts. Authorities should also consider assigning a designated officer to respond to earthquake survivors and listen to and redress their complaints and appeals.

Ensure transparency in the distribution of relief aid

The scale of the devastation caused by the earthquake requires that a substantial amount of resources are made available for relief, rebuilding, and rehabilitation efforts. Many of these resources come from external and international donors. Transparency around aid’s origins and quantities and publicly available tracking on how it is spent is part of the right to information and also improves the way in which the aid resources are allocated and utilised effectively and efficiently. Transparency further helps the population, civil society, and the media hold national authorities accountable with regard to the receipt, allocation, and spending of aid. Transparency reduces aid corruption and increases public participation in the development of government policies around aid use.  

Unfortunately, according to the available information, the distribution of aid relief in Turkey has been marred by numerous deficiencies and discrimination as well as a total lack of transparency. For example, there have been reports about the lack of adequate emergency personnel and relief aid from Turkey’s Disaster and Management Authority (AFAD), which left several quake-hit regions without any aid, especially in the first 48 hours. There are also reports about the sale of donated goods that were intended to be distributed free of charge: the state-backed Turkish Red Crescent allegedly sold 2,050 tents to an independent Turkish NGO for around 2.4 million US dollars three days after the earthquake and sold canned food and second-hand clothes. Social solidarity networks and humanitarian aid organised by opposition parties were blocked, including through seizure of the aid collected and attempts to appoint a government trustee to take over the crisis coordination centre. The reports also document healthcare discrimination in favour of districts that previously voted for the ruling AK Party, a move criticised by the Turkish Medical Association’s Chair, Sebnem Korur Fincancı.

ARTICLE 19 therefore calls on Turkish authorities to disclose aid information to prevent and expose corruption through:

  • Proactively publishing and disclosing data and documents about aid;
  • Making sure that all information on aid is available in a comprehensive, timely, accessible, and comparable manner. This includes publishing information in open data and machine-readable formats; and
  • Releasing information about aid following the principle of maximum disclosure.

Ensure transparency in public procurement for reconstruction and in future disaster prevention measures

Days after the earthquake, the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan announced that the government will rebuild destroyed buildings ‘within one year and hand them back to citizens’. However, experts warn that cities struck by earthquakes should be re-planned based on scientific data and encouraged authorities to put safety before speed in rebuilding, as the rush to build tens of thousands of housing units without thorough geological surveys could lead Turkey to further catastrophe. Furthermore, it was reported that Turkish authorities allegedly began signing no-bid contracts worth around 30 billion Turkish liras (158 million US dollars) with construction companies owned by former AKP MPs, parliamentary candidates, spouses, friends, and relatives.

Access to information is key to avoiding corruption in public procurement and is even more crucial in reconstruction efforts after a natural disaster. Reconstruction and rebuilding efforts inherently require the procurement of goods and services from construction companies. There is a high risk that post-disaster urgency will trigger quick decisions and the use of emergency procurement. It is crucial that transparency is maintained at every stage of the procurement cycle, from planning, to tender, to contract award, and until the contract expires. 

Additionally, available information shows that there was a lack of preparedness for this kind of disaster in Turkey as the government failed to respond to numerous warnings, including from the Chamber of Geological Engineers, Peoples’ Democratic Party and the mayor of Hatay province. There were also numerous allegations of corruption in the construction sector, raising concerns that building permits were received despite the lack of adherence to building standards. This then caused tens of thousands of newly-built residences and government buildings, including the site of the Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD), to collapse like sandcastles. Last but not least, while an ‘earthquake tax’ amounting to more than 38 billion US dollars has been collected since 2000 for disaster prevention and relief, the government has never been transparent about  how  this money was spent and allocated, despite repeated demands from opposition parties

In order to prevent similar problems in the future, the government must develop effective early warning systems, emergency policies and mechanisms, and disaster preparedness systems. 

ARTICLE 19 calls on Turkish authorities to:

  • Ensure that transparency and access to information are maintained during procurement processes for reconstructing buildings and homes, from planning to contract expiration. Transparency should encompass the proactive and centralised publication of procurement documents and data. Emergency procurement should be an exception. If they are used, authorities should make the public aware that they are using such procedures, provide a justification, and ensure that all parts of the procurement process are duly recorded and accessible both during and after the procurement process. 
  • Make all possible efforts to ensure that any information they hold about immediate disaster risks is communicated as quickly and as widely as possible to those likely to be affected.
  • Put appropriate systems in place to ensure adequate dissemination of information about disaster risks and threats. These systems should include a variety of channels and warning devices, including independent media, and should be developed to ensure that as many people as possible in high-risk areas receive warning messages as rapidly as possible. Warning messages should contain all relevant information, such as how imminent and serious the threat of the event is, the risk of the event occurring, and suggestions for preventive action. 
  • Take all necessary measures to ensure that populations in high risk areas are informed about the preventive or mitigating measures that may/should be taken in case of a pending/imminent disaster.

Ensure local public participation in post-disaster efforts

Lessons from previous development and disaster situations have demonstrated that assistance is far more effective when it is based on local needs, priorities, and interests and when local communities can be involved in relief and rebuilding efforts. In the context of reconstruction and rebuilding of earthquake affected areas, survivors’ participation is vital. Those affected have a fundamental right to be involved in and consulted about all aspects of this work. Finally, local participation itself serves an important rehabilitative role for survivors, a role that is increasingly being recognised as central to post-disaster interventions. 

In terms of the post-disaster relief, local participation has proved to be imperative in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes in Turkey. The effective rapid delivery of disaster relief was actively obstructed by the internet throttling, which besides constituting a serious violation of the right to freedom of expression, did not allow the active local participation of rescue operations that were organised over social media.

Although there is pressure for relief to be delivered rapidly, decisions that have profound and lasting effects on local communities cannot be driven by short-term imperatives. One month later, not much space has been afforded to participation in decisions regarding the rebuilding and reconstruction of earthquake-affected areas. Government authorities must involve relevant local and professional agents in their decision-making processes. The voices of universities, professional associations, and NGOs are crucial to the proper planning and execution of rebuilding efforts.

As the region impacted by the earthquake is one with an ancient history, rich with multiple cultures and peoples, it is also crucial that rebuilding and reconstruction is conducted with the utmost care to uphold the cultural texture of the region. This can only be achieved with the effective participation of local agents. 

ARTICLE 19 calls on Turkish authorities to:

  • Incorporate the participation of local communities as a central aspect of disaster reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts; and
  • Put effective systems in place to ensure the two-way flow of information to and from affected communities as part of the overall strategy to ensure effective participation.

Ensure the media and civil society can freely scrutinise post-disaster actions

The media and civil society play a central role in providing key information to survivors, monitoring relief efforts, and strengthening the transparent and accountable delivery of aid. They can also relay key messages from those affected to officials and others trying to respond to the disaster. This role is highly evident in the response to the earthquake in Turkey.

As for the media, their role is not limited to simply providing a channel for official information dissemination. The media can also play a key role in ensuring that complex messages are translated into a meaningful and understandable form for the public. In order for it to be able to perform this role, the media needs to be able to access accurate and timely information from credible sources. This is especially the case for local media, such as community radios, newspapers, and even television services. 

In the aftermath of the earthquakes, there have been multiple reports of press and media freedom violations in Turkey. In the first eight days of the earthquakes, four journalists covering relief efforts were detained, nine were openly prevented from working, and eight were targets of physical or verbal attacks. Investigations were initiated against journalists over charges such as ‘provoking the people into animosity and hatred’ for comments in a TV programme criticising the government’s response to the earthquake, as well as against a reporter who broke the story of a man accused of looting dying in police custody due to alleged torture in earthquake-hit province Hatay. Journalists were also reportedly prevented from filming rescue efforts by police officers on the grounds that they did not have the press cards issued by the Presidency’s Communications Directorate. The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) fined three TV outlets with the maximum possible amount of an administrative fine and issued broadcasting bans because of their critical broadcasts about the earthquakes. Finally, pro-government media commentators reportedly avoided giving a voice to earthquake survivors who made comments critical of the government, and media outlets cut out footage of President Erdoğan’s visit to Gaziantep when one survivor demanded that Erdoğan answer his questions about the government’s response.

ARTICLE 19 therefore calls on Turkish authorities to:

  • Allow media workers adequate access to all affected areas and to refrain from implementing any restrictions against them; 
  • Immediately investigate any threats, attacks, or killings of journalists and anyone carrying out journalistic activities, which constitute human right violations, and to bring perpetrators to justice;
  • Take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of journalists and media by competent and transparent authorities; and 
  • Refrain from imposing fines or broadcasting bans on TV outlets in response to critical remarks in their broadcasts.