Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Coal miners work on a collapsed building to find earthquake victims on February 13, 2023 in Islahiye, Turkey [Mehmet Kaçmaz/Getty Images]

Turkish media is trapped under the rubble

Turkey has suffered one of the gravest humanitarian disasters in its history,
but still the media cannot seem to disengage from political polarisation


Just as Turkey is getting ready for a general election, it has been struck by the most devastating earthquakes in its history. 

The earthquakes, which have already claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria, will force millions whose homes were destroyed to relocate to other cities. 

But the disaster has shown us something else. It has revealed that the media in Turkey, which has been held hostage by political polarisation for years, has also been trapped under the rubble.

Turkey is a country located in an earthquake zone. Therefore, we are talking about a country where earthquakes are hardly a surprise when they happen. In particular, the Gölcük earthquake, which occurred on August 17, 1999, with a magnitude of 7.4, claiming the lives of 18,000 people, created serious trauma. 

Since then, earthquakes have been one of the most important issues on the agenda in Turkey for both politicians and the media. Seismologists have recently been talking about the high probability of a 7.2 earthquake in Istanbul. The possibility of a destructive earthquake in Istanbul, the heart of Turkey with a population of 16 million, continues to be the greatest nightmare of the Turks.

Kahramanmaraş was also among the cities that were expected to experience a major earthquake in the near future. However, no one expected it to cause a near-apocalypse.

The two earthquakes on February 6 have caused the deaths of many thousands of people while buildings have collapsed in 10 cities where a total of 13.5 million people live. 

To better convey the gravity of the situation, it is worth noting that the total area of the cities affected by the destruction, which is 99,362 square kilometres, is equivalent to an area larger than each of Hungary, Portugal or Austria. For all its forward thinking, Turkey could not have expected to suffer such a destructive series of earthquakes over such a vast area.

It is believed that the earthquakes, which have already displaced millions of people, will also have a substantial economic cost to the tune of billions of dollars for Turkey.

Even though search-and-rescue operations are almost finished in the zone, the news from the region is not encouraging at all. After the fault line was broken, aftershocks are still occurring in the south of Turkey. The 6.4 and 5.8 magnitude earthquakes that hit Hatay on February 20 once again revealed that the danger continues. So how effective are the responses of political authorities and media outlets in these terrible days?

Unfortunately, neither politicians nor media in Turkey have performed well in the face of such a grave disaster. While the earthquake prompted a huge surge of social solidarity, the media, like politicians, has not reflected the situation in the disaster area correctly or adequately highlighted the needs of the victims.

Neither the government nor the opposition have managed to develop an inclusive discourse regarding the national disaster. The media, which does not seem to be able to escape being a part of and a tool for political polarisation, has failed to accurately reflect the disaster zone situation and highlight the victims' needs. 

At first, the government, which did not fully grasp the extent of the destruction, was under the illusion that everything was under control. The opposition has focused its efforts on presenting the tragedy as a sign of the government's incompetence. 

Media outlets have also preferred to maintain their stance in line with their political leanings. Various shortcomings which were voiced by different groups, such as lack of organisation, lack of coordination and being late to involve the military, have become little more than an opportunity by opposition media to criticise the government. Pro-government media outlets have also persisted in presenting claims of inadequacy as false accusations or disinformation with a defensive attitude.

As a result of such petty in-fighting, the Turkish media has weakened its credibility significantly. 

Despite this negative atmosphere, there are of course names on both sides who strive to be good journalists. However, they are few and far between. On the whole, journalists have failed to take maximum care not to increase the trauma experienced by victims, to inform the public correctly about the causes of the disaster, and to help society prepare for the future by finding solutions to prevent similar problems.

The government's helplessness during the 1999 earthquake was one of the most important factors in the AK Party, led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, coming to power in the early election of 2002. Currently, there is no strong and charismatic leader among the names in the opposition, who are only driven by their opposition to Erdoğan. 

The opposition - both its politicians and its media - dreams that the earthquake disaster, which has occurred during a period when the economy is already in trouble, will be an advantage for them in the elections. The government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, seems to believe that it will win this election with the concrete steps it has taken to heal the wounds of the earthquake after its initial shock.

Like politicians, the media also seem to have postponed the sincere learning of lessons and striving to regain the credibility of the public after the elections, in this environment where all the pains of the natural disaster are still acute. We will most likely have to wait for the results of the elections, which will be held on May 14 (or at the latest, June 18), to see which way things will go.

Yusuf Göktaş is a freelance journalist focusing on human rights and politics


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance


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