Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.
In April, Kayıhan Pala, a prominent public health expert at Uludağ University in northwestern Turkey, was shocked to find himself the target of a criminal complaint. Pala, a member of the COVID-19 monitoring group of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), had given an interview to a local website and shared research that showed the number of cases and deaths from the coronavirus were much higher than the government had reported. The complaint, filed by the governor of the province of Bursa, accused him of “misinforming the public” and “causing panic.”
Saying it was his job to speak out about a burgeoning health crisis, Pala called for the charges to be dismissed. Instead, the prosecutor’s office asked administrators at the university to investigate. Only after a monthslong investigation, and national and international condemnation from rights groups and health workers, did the university conclude on 1 September that Pala had acted within his duty.
“I am a public health scientist and I have to talk about this pandemic locally, nationally, and internationally,” Pala said. “It should not be a crime.”
Yet his case is far from unique. Critics say Turkish authorities are using judicial harassment and administrative investigations to stifle criticism and control information about the crisis. Since March, they have launched investigations against doctors, including leaders of local TTB chapters, after they discussed the government’s health policy and coronavirus information in traditional and social media. “Our colleagues have revealed the scientific facts, nothing beyond that,” says TTB Secretary General Bülent Nazım Yılmaz.
A spokesperson for Turkey’s Ministry of Health did not respond to a request for comment.
Turkey, a country of 82 million, has reported almost 300,000 COVID-19 cases so far and just over 7000 deaths. In June, authorities declared their containment strategy a success and lifted a partial lockdown in an effort to boost the country’s ailing economy. But independent doctors and medical associations warned that the reopening was premature.
In early August, TTB claimed their data showed the true number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country was higher than official figures and accused the government of not being transparent. Turkey’s Ministry of Health has denied the allegations. And although Minister of Health Fahrettin Koca has recently warned that the country is facing an increase in cases and deaths and has implemented extra measures to slow the spread of the virus, medical associations say the government’s effort to stifle information about the pandemic has continued.
Turkey has not regularly released case and death numbers broken down by city, and government figures do not include probable cases, as recommended by the World Health Organization. The authorities have not answered requests to provide data detailing cases by demographic groups, such as among the country’s large refugee population or the working class, despite requests from doctors for that information.
In April, the Ministry of Health sparked outrage when it announced that all COVID-19–related research would need its approval, a step widely seen as intended to block independent scientists and physicians from gaining access to more detailed coronavirus data. “We are asking for more data and more [measures to prevent the spread of the virus],” Pala says. “This is why they are mad about people who are speaking right now.”
In the southeastern city of Şanlıurfa, hard hit by COVID-19, authorities have pressed forward with an investigation of the Sanlıurfa Medical Chamber’s co-chair, Ömer Melik, and its secretary general, Osman Yüksekyayla. Melik was first summoned by police and accused of spreading fear and panic in early April after posting the number of COVID-19 cases in the city on the Medical Chamber’s official Twitter account. Later that month, he was detained again with Yüksekyayla after the chamber highlighted the deaths of medical workers, raised concerns over the number of coronavirus cases in local prisons, and warned on Twitter that medical workers lacked adequate personal protective equipment.
Melik tells Science that police said a government circular stated only Ministry of Health officials were permitted to share coronavirus-related information. When he asked to see the circular, they refused, he says. “Our work was accurate and this is not a criminal situation,” Melik says. A court date has not yet been set in the case.
Public health officials around the globe have stressed that beating COVID-19 requires clear public communication. In some Western democracies, Twitter and Facebook have come under fire for spreading misinformation about the pandemic. But in Turkey, where the government is among the world’s largest jailers of journalists and pro-government voices dominate the media, social media have been a popular and crucial tool for independent doctors and scientists to inform the public.
“If we are not clear about what is happening, and people don’t know what is going on, it makes the situation even worse and the virus spreads faster,” says Özgür Deniz Değer, former co-chair of the Van Medical Chamber. Değer was summoned by police in March after a press interview in which he criticized Turkish authorities for not including political prisoners when releasing detainees from local jails where COVID-19 could spread. In May, he was summoned again over a tweet that tagged Turkey’s health minister and questioned the accuracy of the government’s health care worker death toll. He was accused of issuing “threats to create fear and panic among the people.”
Two months later, Değer was informed the charges had been dropped, but he says the ordeal has caused him to self-censor. “This investigation against me was dropped, but it doesn’t mean that [authorities] won’t start a new one because of new [social media] posts,” he says.