Two major earthquakes, with a magnitude of 7.8 and 7.5 struck 10 provinces in southern Türkiye and northwestern Syria on 6 February 2023 resulting in unprecedented damage in two countries. The epicentre of the earthquakes was Kahramanmaraş, a major city in Türkiye, now almost completely destroyed. 31.643 people in Türkiye (AFAD, as of 13 February) and another 3.600 in Syria (UN, as of 10 February) confirmed dead by the authorities. On the fifth day of the disaster, the death toll had already surpassed the Marmara earthquake that happened in 1999. Experts in Türkiye say that another 200.000 people are still under the rubble as hope has almost faded away. On the other hand UNHCR estimates that over 5 million may need shelter support in Syria after the earthquake. The extent of devastation can be seen in satellite imagery.
Türkiye is familiar with earthquakes. In Türkiye’s 100 years of history 50 notable earthquakes recorded with a magnitude of 6 or higher that claimed the lives of more than 80.000 people. However, the country has never been prepared. Evidently, those at the helm of the state apparatus were not capable of managing a crisis at this scale. The only reflex that the Erdoğan regime could show is to manage perception. In this article I’ll try to demonstrate how Erdoğan manipulated facts by using fabricated themes and try to divert attention from their failure elsewhere rather than concentrating their limited efforts on managing the crisis with two examples.
On 6 February 2023 11:04 AM (seven hours after the earthquake), the Turkish President appeared at the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (Afet ve Acil Durum Yönetimi Başkanlığı – AFAD) headquarters. The messages that he gave;
- the first responder organisations such as AFAD and Kızılay (Red Crescent) are mobilised and immediately reacted,
- The Armed Forces and municipalities are tasked.
- He said that 912 citizens confirmed death.
- He also pointed out that the international community got in touch with Türkiye and 45 countries alongside NATO and the EU offered help.
Facts: Figures revealed only 64 minutes ago by AFAD, the very same institution he was speaking at, indicated that 284 citizens were confirmed dead, more than three times less than Erdoğan mentioned. Various social media shares revealed that very little – if any – government effort was observed on the field in the first 24 hours (please use advanced search function in twitter with the following search terms and then filter videos: (#deprem) lang:tr until:2023-02-07 since:2023-02-06). Military experts who participated in the Marmara earthquake relief efforts indicated that the armed forces’ efforts are too late and too little when compared to 1999. Contrary to 1999, a meaningful army presence could only be observed after 36 hours, the most precious period for saving lives is wasted. Moreover, neither armed forces nor any other law enforcement agency in the region could effectively restore law and order until now. Consequently, on 11 February 2023 Germany and Austria halted their operations due to the worsening security situation. And it was Türkiye, not the international community that made the request for assistance. NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) published requests for assistance explicitly mentioning the originator of the request as Türkiye (three requests as of 12 February 2023, first of which published two hours after Erdoğan’s speech. Please take into consideration that these kinds of requests require a processing time which means most probably EADRCC received requests from Turkish authorities well before Erdoğan’s speech).
Erdoğan’s main motivation was to show that he is in control of the situation where all available data shows the opposite. His choices for crucial posts exacerbated the situation.
AFAD’s head of disaster response directorate, assuming overall responsibility for search and rescue efforts, İsmail Palakoğlu is an AKP loyalist without proper education and competence who was transferred from Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı) only one month ago. Kızılay (Red Crescent) is another institution which is plundered by AKP. Three relatives of Binali Yıldırım serve in Kızılay (İlhami Yıldırım, head of board of directors, Binali Yıldırım’s brother, Büşra Bahar Köylübay, vice president, Binali Yıldırım’s daughter and Seda Yıldırım, member of the board of directors, daughter-in-law of Binali Yıldırım) among other Erdoğan referenced figures without any merit. Such a team of incompetent bureaucrats would have misinformed him if they could have informed anyone about anything.
He probably hesitated to activate the armed forces because of two reasons; 1. After the 15 July so-called coup attempt, he demonised the armed forces and didn’t want it to gain popularity, 2. The earthquake triggered his paranoia of a Gezi like uprising, and in such a contingency, he might have thought that he will need figures/units loyal to him to suppress the possible uprising.
When it comes to the rhetoric he chose in describing international support, his political islamic worldview positions “foreign powers” as rivals. Begging for help from them contradicts with the myth that he created.
On 7 February 2023 12:40 PM (32 hours after the earthquake) Erdoğan delivered another speech from the State Information Coordination Center (Devlet Bilgi Koordinasyon Merkezi). Not only his words, but his intonation, appearance, and the background he chose were widely criticised. He was unnecessarily angry, had a long face, rebuked citizens for allegedly spreading disinformation and threatened them with prosecution. The camera angle chosen made Erdoğan more horrendous. The background of the shootage created “big brother is watching you” effect and he definitely tried to intimidate people. The messages that he gave are as follows;
- We face one of the most heavy crises in the history of mankind.
- All government apparatus is responding to the crisis.
- For now, we monitor fake news and in due time we will hold those who fabricate and disseminate disinformation accountable.
- Those who want to help should make donations to AFAD.
- We decided to declare a state of emergency in ten cities for three months.
Facts: The earthquake was in fact exceptional. But it was not a surprise. In light of the available data, geologist Prof.Naci Görür warned of a possible earthquake near Kahramanmaraş on 3 February 2023 (three days before the earthquake). Even more interestingly, in line with Türkiye Disaster Response Plan (Türkiye Afet Müdahale Planı – TAMP) AFAD organised a real time national earthquake exercise between 9-11 October 2019 in Pazarcık/Kahramanmaraş, 40 km northeast of the first earthquake. Kahramanmaraş disaster risk mitigation plan, published in 2020 includes a thorough assessment about a possible earthquake in Kahramanmaraş which almost exactly happened. So, there is no excuse for unpreparedness. Instead, Erdoğan legislated a zoning amnesty for Kahramanmaraş in 2019, prior to the local elections, which grants permission to 144.556 buildings which were reported ineligible to live in.
The problem with social media is that it breaks the spell that Erdoğan’s propaganda machine produces. The reality on the ground, as seen from the shares, was different from the propaganda machine’s version of the reality. So he targeted social media with the state of emergency and blocked Twitter, one of the major mediums for people under the rubble to get in touch with the surface on 8 February 2023, the day after this speech. Simultaneously, the Erdoğan government tried to silence opponents on social media with arrests. But when they realised that the ban was not working and Erdoğan was losing popularity, his propaganda team changed their social media strategy, restored connections and began to feed the media with arrested contractors of the collapsed buildings and torturing scenes perpetrated by people in police uniforms beating civilians who allegedly plunder markets, block relief convoys and rob rubbles. With this they aimed to divert hatred and frustration against poor government performance towards somewhere else. They also bombarded social and mass media with “miracle rescues” to create positive sentiments among the community.
The Erdoğan regime, unable to organise, corrupted to the core, and paralysed at the hands of incompetent partisans screwed up heavily in crisis management efforts. This earthquake revealed that Erdoğan does not care about anything but himself and ruthlessly lies when his interests are at stake. It also reveals how his propaganda machine works to shape perceptions. If this earthquake has one positive aspect, that might be its potential to serve as a wake-up call for Türkiye about how dangerous it is to live under Erdoğan’s rule.
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