HRW: Investigations into medical chamber leaders undermine COVID-19 response

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Turkish authorities to immediately halt investigations into doctors running three medical associations in the country’s east and southeast regions over COVID-19-related interviews and social media posts.

The rights group has raised the alarm at the targeting of 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 about the COVID-19 outbreak in Turkey. The offense carries a possible prison sentence of two to four years.

Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called on the Turkish government to drop the investigations immediately, saying, “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.”

Şanlıurfa Medical Chamber Co-chair Ömer Melik was summoned to the police station on April 8 after his chamber released the number of COVID-19 cases in the city on April 5. He was questioned about social media posts detailing the number of cases and deaths in the city, where the organization acquired the information, who posted it and for what purpose.

Melik was again summoned by the police on May 4, this time together with the chamber’s secretary-general, Osman Yüksekyayla. They were detained and questioned about six social media posts on the medical chamber’s official 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 described the posts as “content that causes panic and fear among the public.” The doctors said the social media posts were to support their colleagues and inform the public. Both doctors were released conditionally by a court, pending the completion of the prosecutor’s criminal investigation.

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

In a similar case Dr. Özgür Deniz Değer, co-chair of the Van Medical Chamber, gave an interview to Mezopotamya on March 19, criticizing the authorities for failing to take early precautions against COVID-19 and 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 because it created “fear and panic among the population.” Değer denied the allegation.

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 investigation if they provide information to the public about COVID-19-related developments so they most often self-censor to avoid repercussions.

The investigations in Şanlıurfa, Mardin and Van 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 down 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.

The Turkish Medical Association has itself been strongly criticized by pro-government media outlets. News reports accused members of the association of being “in pursuit of chaos” after association officials said at 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.

“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,” HRW’s 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.”

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