Turkey imposes ban on media coverage of Iraq hostage crisis

Istanbul, June 18, 2014–The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by a Turkish court’s decision on Monday to censor media coverage of a hostage crisis in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Last week, insurgents led by the Al-Qaeda splinter group Islamic State in Iraq and Sham abducted at least 80 Turkish citizens, including 49 consulate staff and their families, according to news reports.

The ban followed statements by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan complaining about the Turkish media’s coverage of the abductions.

On Monday, the 9th Court of Serious Crimes in Ankara ruled that the media should not cover the hostage situation in Iraq in the interest of national security. The verdict said the hostages’ safety was being endangered by the media. In justifying the ban, the court also said that news reporting about the crisis was “untrue” and written or broadcast “in a way to display state weakness.” The court invoked Article 157 of Turkey’s Law on Criminal Procedure, which protects the secrecy of criminal investigations, as well as Article 3 of the Turkish Press Law, which allows restricting freedom of the media to protect national security, according to the verdict.

The censorship order came after the Bureau of Investigating Anti-Constitutional Crimes under Ankara’s Chief Prosecutor’s Office filed a demand with the 3rd Penal Court of Peace in Ankara for a gag order. The court rejected the demand. The bureau then filed the demand with the 9th Court of Serious Crimes, which approved it on Monday, according to court documents.

News outlets could face penalties, including suspensions or monetary fines, if they cover the hostage situation, reports said.

“We call on Turkey to immediately stop censoring coverage of the hostage crisis in Iraq and for authorities, including Prime Minister Erdoğan, to respect the vital role of the media,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “Blocking news on a sensitive issue will give rise to rumors and misinformation and make the conflict that much more difficult to resolve.”

Erdogan, in a speech in the Turkish city of Trabzon on Sunday, said the Turkish press reports were “provocations” and called on the media to “follow the situation without provoking the process, without writing or talking a lot,” the English-language daily Today’s Zaman reported.

Turkey’s broadcast media regulator RTÜK issued a statement on Tuesday, publicizing the censorship order and instructing the media to comply. The ruling went into effect immediately, but a majority of the media has ignored it.

In a statement, the Journalists’ Association of Turkey declared the ban a violation of freedom of expression and the public’s right to be informed. The association noted that the international press had covered the abductions in Iraq so a ban for the Turkish media on the subject was impractical.

This is not the first time a Turkish court has issued a ban on media coverage. In March 2013, a local court issued a gag order on all news coverage of deadly bomb attacks in the district of Reyhanli in the province of Hatay. The ban was prompted by a prosecutor’s complaint. Top government officials, including Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin, publicly supported the censorship order. A second court lifted the ban a few days later amid local and international outcry.