HUFFINGTON POST
01/13/2016 01:55 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2017

Why Turkey Bans News About Terror Bombings

Even though they're ignored and circumvented, the media blackouts still serve a purpose.
People leave flowers for victims of the attack at Istanbul's Sultanahmet square after it was reopened to the m
Onur Çoban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
People leave flowers for victims of the attack at Istanbul's Sultanahmet square after it was reopened to the media and the public on Jan. 13, 2016. Many journalists ignored the media ban the Turkish government imposed after the bombing.

UPDATE: Feb. 17 -- Turkish authorities again rushed out a temporary broadcast ban after a deadly explosion ripped through the capital city of Ankara on Wednesday.

The order bans broadcasting news about the bombing. The governor of Ankara said earlier that a vehicle rigged with explosives detonated as military buses passed the Turkish parliament, killing at least 28 people.

Previously:

Barely one hour after a suicide blast ripped through an Istanbul square packed with tourists on Tuesday morning, the Turkish government imposed a media blackout.

Ten Germans died in the bombing in the historic neighborhood of Sultanahmet. Turkish officials said the suicide bomber was linked to the Islamic State militant group.

The prime minister’s office quickly rushed out a ban on media coverage of the blast, citing a 2011 Turkish law that allows the government to institute a temporary blackout to protect public order or national security. A few hours later, the ban was backed by a judicial order from an Istanbul court. 

Blanket Media Bans Have Become More Frequent

Tuesday's media ban followed a pattern the government has established after recent attacks. 

After twin blasts also blamed on the Islamic State killed over 100 people in the Turkish capital of Ankara last October, the government immediately issued a temporary ban on pictures of the bombings or images that might “create a feeling of panic,” and a few days later banned all reporting on the investigation into the attacks. 

Turkey briefly banned access to Twitter after another suspected Islamic State suicide bombing three months earlier, which killed 32 people in the border city of Suruc, citing a local court ban on images of the blast.

Such blanket media bans have become more frequent in recent years. The government has also imposed them after corruption and political scandals. Turkish newspaper Hurriyet counted over 150 different gag orders on media reporting in the country between 2010 and 2014. 

"At every crisis, larger or smaller in scale, the Turkish government's knee-jerk reaction has been to gag the media," said Nina Ognianova, the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The Bans Are Rarely Effective

Turkish media outlets trying to comply with the ban on Tuesday struggled to understand its terms. 

While the judicial order said the ban included all news reporting and social media posts about the bombing and the ensuing investigation, CNN’s Turkish channel, CNN Turk, reported that the ban covered images of the blast and its aftermath. Several Turkish TV channels pulled images of the bombing but continued to provide news updates throughout the day, including the state-run broadcaster TRT

Many journalists ignored the ban, including most international journalists in the country. "Really, the best way to ensure the global media covers a bombing is to impose a broadcast ban on it," Kareem Sheehan, Middle East reporter for The Guardian, wrote on Twitter.

Meanwhile, images of the blast continued to be widely shared on social media, where the ban was the subject of much satire and disdain.

"Media bans imposed by the Turkish government are rarely effective," David Diaz-Jogeix, director of programs at press freedom group Article 19, told The WorldPost by email. "Some media simply defy the bans. ... Additionally, even where Turkey is preventing domestic broadcasting, there are other sources of information including social media and international media."

The Turkish satire magazine Penguen shows a cartoon of souls of bomb victims declining to discuss the cause of their death. The speech bubbles read: "Why did you die brother?" "I don't know. You?" "There is a media ban, I can't talk."

But Bans Do Serve A Purpose

Yet even if the media ban doesn't achieve a total news blackout, it still restricts information for a large part of the Turkish population, experts told The WorldPost.

Most journalists who ignored Tuesday's ban write for print or online outlets, while the ban was mostly observed by the broadcast media, which has the greatest reach throughout Turkey, CPJ's Ognianova said. 

"Television is still the biggest, most influential news source in Turkey, particularly in rural, provincial areas where Internet penetration is still low," she explained. These areas are traditionally home to the support base of the ruling Justice and Development party, or AKP, and some experts argued that the ban is mostly aimed at them.

"The government doesn’t think it can control all information for all people, but if they can control information for their key constituency of AKP supporters, that is valuable to them," said Nate Schenkkan, a Turkey expert at pro-democracy group Freedom House. 

For some AKP supporters who are critical of the Turkish media, the ban could bolster the tough image of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is trying to expand the powers of the presidency. "Erdogan is probably playing to his supporters, who look favorably upon a strong leader," Diaz-Jogeix said.

Authorities Get More Control Over The Narrative

While the bans can’t make the news go away, they do give the government more control over how crises are reported.

"The government may be trying to delay reporting on the attacks by independent commentators, in order to try and establish its own narrative regarding the attacks," Diaz-Jogeix told The WorldPost.

After Tuesday's blast, for example, Erdogan was quick to condemn both the Islamic State group, which officials said was responsible for the bombing, and the PKK, the Kurdish militant group Turkey is fighting in bloody battles in the country's southeast.

"One terrorist organization is no different than the other," Erdogan said on Tuesday.

While the Islamic State and Kurdish fighters associated with the PKK are fighting each other in Syria, the Turkish government has repeatedly linked the two groups. After the Suruc bombing by the Islamic State, Turkish forces bombed both the Islamic State in Syria and the PKK in Iraq, and rounded up PKK suspects inside Turkey.

"They use [this narrative] to reinforce the main argument, which is the fight against the PKK," Schenkkan said.

Bans Also Help Authorities Control The Press

The media ban also helps the government control supporters and punish dissenters in the press.

"Given that the government effectively controls much of the mainstream media, once it has made its position clear, it would then be able to ensure that the main channels report on the bombing following an established government line," Diaz-Jogeix said. 

The remaining independent media outlets are left in a state of uncertainty. Ognianova warned that journalists who flout the ban risk up to 3 years in jail under Turkey's broadly worded criminal laws.

“It is implemented arbitrarily, like all freedom of expression laws in Turkey," Schenkkan said. “It gives a way to frame people who violate the ban ... Then when they later do reporting on corruption, the brand association is that they’re anti-Turkish.” 

Press freedom advocates say media freedoms have deteriorated sharply under Erdogan’s rule as prime minister and then as president. The government has expanded control over the media, while prosecutions and threats against journalists have spiked in recent years.

Erdogan's media crackdown has polarized the country, Diaz-Jogeix said, energizing his supporters while fueling discontent among government opponents.

Ultimately, press freedom advocates say, media bans end up making everyone in Turkey less safe. 

"Gagging the media does not relieve tensions; on the contrary, it kindles fear and uncertainty as reliable news are rapidly replaced by rumors," Ognianova said. "The public needs information in times of crises more than ever." 

Read more on the Istanbul bombing: 

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January 2016 Istanbul Attacks
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