In DepthCOVID-19

Turkey targets critics of its pandemic response

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Science  25 Sep 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6511, pp. 1554
DOI: 10.1126/science.369.6511.1554

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 Bursa province, 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 pressure 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 says. “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. “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.


Embedded Image

Protesters gather in Bursa, Turkey, on 21 July to support Kayıhan Pala, who was accused of “causing panic.”

PHOTO: MEDICAL CHAMBER OF BURSA

Turkey, a country of 82 million, has reported just over 300,000 COVID-19 cases so far and more than 7500 deaths. In June, the government lifted a partial lockdown, although independent doctors and medical associations warned the reopening was premature. In early August, TTB claimed its 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.

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca recently warned that the country is facing an increase in cases and deaths and has implemented extra control measures, but medical associations say the government is still stifling information about the pandemic. Turkey has not regularly released case and death numbers broken down by city, for instance, and has not answered scientists' requests to provide data detailing cases by demographic groups, such as among the country's large refugee population or the working class.

The government has also declared that all COVID-19–related research must be approved by the Ministry of Health. The announcement, in April, sparked outrage and was widely seen as intended to deny independent scientists access to detailed 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 Şanlıurfa 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. (Although social media have come under fire for spreading misinformation in some countries, they have been a popular and crucial tool for independent doctors and scientists to inform the public in Turkey.)

Later that month, Melik 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 protective equipment.

Melik tells Science that police said a government circular stated that only Health Ministry 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.

“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 an interview in which he criticized authorities for not including political prisoners when releasing detainees from jails where COVID-19 could spread. In May, he was summoned again over a tweet that tagged Turkey's minister of health 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.

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