A team of doctors puts on protective suits before they meet a patient with suspected COVID-19, Istanbul May 2020. ©2020 Yasin Akgu/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images ©2020 Yasin Akgu/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

(Istanbul) – Turkish authorities should immediately halt investigations into doctors running three professional medical associations in Turkey’s southeast and eastern regions, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should respect both freedom of expression and the important role of healthcare worker associations in informing the public and protecting public health.

Since March 2020, the Turkish authorities have targeted doctors in senior positions in professional bodies, known as medical chambers, in Van, Mardin, and Şanlıurfa for allegedly “issuing threats to create fear and panic among the public” in media interviews and social media posts relating to the Covid-19 outbreak in Turkey. On May 4, a court in Şanlıurfa imposed a travel ban on Şanlıurfa Medical Chamber’s general secretary, Osman Yüksekyayla, and co-chair, Ömer Melik, and required them to sign in with their local police stations, pending the prosecutor’s completion of a criminal investigation.

“The Turkish authorities criminally investigating medical chamber officials is not only an outrageous attack on free speech but impedes the fight against the deadly Covid-19 pandemic and obstructs their legitimate work,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The investigations should immediately be dropped, and all conditions imposed on the doctors, including travel bans, lifted.”

Bülent Nazım Yılmaz, secretary general of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), told Human Rights Watch on May 6 that health workers feel concerned they may be put under investigations if they provide information to the public in the Covid-19 context and so most often self-censor to avoid repercussions.

The investigations target executives of three medical chambers for their public statements regarding the Covid-19 pandemic after the first patient in Turkey was diagnosed on March 10.

The first weeks after the first case was confirmed, the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), the Ankara-based umbrella body with which all provincial medical chambers are affiliated, and the Social Services and Health Workers’ Union (SES), complained about a lack of protective gear and measures to protect health workers.

Executives of the medical chambers in Van, Mardin, and Şanlıurfa voiced similar concerns in media interviews and social media posts. They were summoned to police stations in their cities and interrogated on suspicion of “issuing threats regarding health with an aim to create panic and fear among the public” (Article 213 of Turkish Penal Code). The offense carries a possible prison sentence of between two and four years.

After the Şanlıurfa Medical Chamber released the number of Covid-19 cases in the city on April 5, Melik was summoned to the police station on April 8. He was questioned about social media posts detailing the number of cases and deaths in the city, where the organization acquired this information, who posted them, and for what purposes.

On May 4, police again summoned and detained Melik with Yüksekyayla, and questioned them about six social media posts on the medical chamber’s official Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. Police asked the doctors about the posts on the situation in prisons, a request to test health workers, the exclusion of some health workers from bonus payments, deaths or infections of health workers from Covid-19, and the government’s failure to term Covid-19 an occupational hazard.

The prosecutor defined these posts as “content that causes panic and fear among the public.” The doctors refuted the accusations, saying that the social media posts were to support their colleagues and inform the public. A court in Şanlıurfa released both doctors conditionally, imposing a travel ban and a requirement to sign in at the nearest police station once a month pending the completion of the prosecutor’s criminal investigation.

Dr. Özgür Deniz Değer, co-chair of the Van Medical Chamber, gave an interview to Mesopotamia News Agency on March 19 in which he criticized the authorities for failing to take early precautions against Covid-19 as well as the government’s failure to quarantine pilgrims returning from Mecca in March, or to protect prisoners. Değer also criticized the authorities for not including the medical chambers in provincial councils established to fight the pandemic. Six days later, police summoned Değer and interrogated him about the interview on the grounds that it created “fear and panic among the population.” Değer refuted this allegation.

On May 4, police interrogated Deger again in connection with a tweet in which he asked Turkey’s health minister how many health workers had been infected with Covid-19.

Dr. Osman Sağlam, co-chair of the Mardin Medical Chamber, gave interviews to the news website Gazete Duvar on March 25 and to Mesopotamia News Agency on March 26. In both interviews, Sağlam suggested that the authorities were hiding information from the public and that doctors were hesitant to diagnose patients with Covid-19 due to pressure from the provincial health directorate to keep case numbers down. On March 28, the police summoned Sağlam to explain his media interviews. According to media reports, Saglam too is under criminal investigation for “creating panic and fear among the public.”

Regarding self-censorship, a video of a doctor explaining a work plan to respond to Covid-19 cases and mentioning “thousands of cases” was secretly recorded and put on social media in March. The Ankara Ibni Sina University hospital announced an administrative investigation into the video and that it had issued the “required warnings.” The doctor later said she was talking about a hypothetical scenario and she apologized for “causing a negative perception in the society” and said she “would choose her words more meticulously in the future.”

The Turkish Medical Association has itself been strongly criticized by media outlets close to the government. News reports accused members of the Turkish Medical Association of being “in pursuit of chaos” after association officials said in a news conference during the early days of the outbreak that there were more cases of the virus in Turkey than the Health Ministry had revealed. Some media outlets claimed the association was more dangerous than Covid-19.

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said on April 29 that an estimated 7,428 health workers had been infected with Covid-19 in Turkey. On June 1, a member of the Turkish Medical Association’s Covid-19 Monitoring Board told Human Rights Watch that at least 41 health workers had died of Covid-19 while about 11,000 had been infected.

The investigations in Van, Sanliurfa, and Mardin are not the first time the Turkish government has targeted health workers and medical bodies for exercising free speech. In May 2019, an Ankara court convicted 11 Turkish Medical Association executives for “spreading terrorist propaganda” and “inciting public hatred” and handed out prison sentences ranging from one to three years for a statement titled, “War Is a Public Health Problem” in which they criticized Turkey’s January 2018 military incursion into the northern Syrian region of Afrin. The convictions are under appeal.

“Turkey’s government should see the important role the Turkish Medical Association plays in offering independent and credible opinions on all matters relating to public health,” Williamson said. “Official efforts to discredit and criminalize the association or its provincial affiliates, notably those in the mainly Kurdish southeast and eastern regions, undermine efforts to uphold public health and the right of medical professionals to do their job.”