People walk past collapsed and damaged residential buildings in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Besni, Turkey, on March 1, 2023. Authorities recently detained three journalists over their earthquake coverage, two of whom remain in custody. (Reuters/Jonathan Spicer)

Turkish authorities jail 2 journalists over earthquake coverage, detain a third overnight

Istanbul, March 2, 2023–Turkish authorities should immediately release two journalists detained over their coverage of the recent earthquakes in the country and ensure that members of the press do not face criminal charges for their work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.

On the evening of Monday, February 27, police in the eastern province of Osmaniye arrested Ali İmat and İbrahim İmat, two brothers who work as journalists in the area, according to news reports and legal documents shared online by parliamentary deputy Tuncay Özkan.

Authorities accuse the brothers of publicly spreading disinformation about the government’s response to the February 6 earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria, and the journalists remain in custody as of Thursday, according to those sources.

Separately, on Wednesday evening, police in the capital city of Ankara detained Gökhan Özbek, publisher of the independent news website and online broadcasting platform 23 Derece, according to news reports and tweets by the journalist, his lawyer, and his outlet,

Police questioned Özbek about reporting on 23 Derece that quoted earthquake victims and politicians, according to his outlet. On Thursday, he was transferred to a court and then released pending investigation, according to further tweets by the journalist’s outlet and his lawyer.

“Turkish authorities’ attempts to obstruct reporting and intimidate journalists in the aftermath of the terrible earthquakes that hit the country show that even a natural disaster is not enough to stop their harassment of the press,” said Özgür Öğret, CPJ’s Turkey representative, “Authorities should immediately free journalists Ali İmat and İbrahim İmat, drop any investigation into Gökhan Özbek, and ensure that members of the media are not targeted for their work.”

A new disinformation law, passed in October 2022, carries prison terms of up to three years for those convicted of publicly spreading false information that causes concern, fear, or panic.

Ali İmat is the publisher of the local news website Osmaniye’den Haber, and İbrahim İmat published the now-defunct weekly newspaper Ayrıntı before becoming a freelance journalist, according to CPJ’s review of the journalists’ Facebook pages and review of İbrahim İmat’s freelance publications at the national pro-government outlet İhlas News Agency.

The İmat brothers were arrested over posts on their Facebook pages, where they frequently share local reporting, in which they investigated allegations that tents meant for earthquake victims had not been distributed, according to news reports, which said they were being held at the Osmaniye Closed Prison pending trial. CPJ was unable to find contact information for the journalists’ legal representatives.

Authorities have not formally accused Özbek of a crime, according to those tweets about his case.

On February 28, journalist Sinan Aygül was sentenced to 10 months in prison for spreading disinformation, the first conviction that CPJ documented under the new law. Turkey’s largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, applied to annul the amendment with the Constitutional Court of Turkey, where it remains pending, according to news reports.

CPJ emailed the chief prosecutors of Ankara and Osmaniye provinces for comment, but did not immediately receive any replies.