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Turkish government criticized for bombing response

Burak Ünveren
November 15, 2022

The news blackout following the bombing in Istanbul has experts worried. Could Ankara also limit information in the run-up to Turkey's elections in 2023?

Pedestrians walk through Istiklal Street in Istanbul, with the street lined with red Turkish flags
Turkish flags line now Istanbul's busy Istiklal Street after the deadly bombing on SundayImage: Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images

It's been years since an incident shook Turkey like the bombing in Istanbul did on Sunday. At least six people were killed and 81 others injured in the attack on Istiklal Street, a busy shopping area in the heart of the city.

The bombing is reminiscent of attacks in 2015 and 2016, when several bombings killed 862 people within 146 days — all in the midst of two parliamentary elections and an attempted military coup. With an eye on the polls, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development (AKP) party was able to use the situation to its advantage, regaining a majority that it had lost not long before. Now, some seven months before the next election, the timing of the latest bombing is fueling speculation.

Hundreds of Turkish flags were hung along Istiklal Street on Monday to symbolize unity against terror. Still, Turkish society is deeply divided, and the upcoming election on June 18 could be close for Erdogan. In a recent poll conducted by the Turkish opinion research institute Yöneylem, 58% of respondents said they would "definitely not" vote for him.

Foreboding tone ahead of elections

While the bombing was shocking enough, the government response has been just as unsettling. The Turkish broadcasting supervisory authority RTUK imposed a news blackout by Sunday afternoon, purportedly to avoid fear and panic. Turkish broadcasters then suspended coverage of the incident, and social media channels such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were functioning only on a limited basis.

Experts who spoke with DW said this kind of information blackout could be a forewarning of what's to come in seven months.

"On election night, access to all social media channels could be restricted, according to the election commission's instructions. The internet throughout Turkey could even be banned," said Faruk Cayir, a lawyer and representative of an association for alternative information technologies. There is no law that could clearly prevent this from happening, he said.

Communications consultant Mehmet Safak Sari also fears significant consequences. "If you restrict the social media networks that people need for communication and information purposes, you are actually pushing them into an unfathomable fear and panic," he told DW, warning that something similar could happen on election night.

"People say, 'If I can't have social media, something bad has happened.' Imagine the six- to seven-hour panic we've experienced now, but on election night," he said.

Two police officers arrest the bombing suspect in a photo circulated by Turkish authorities
This photo of the arrest of a suspect in the bombing was circulated by Turkish authoritiesImage: Turkish General Directorate of Security / Handout/AA/picture alliance

PKK blamed for Sunday's attack

The suspected bomber has since been apprehended, with pictures of the arrest circulated on official social media channels. More than 40 suspected accomplices are also said to be in police custody.

The bomber reportedly entered Turkey illegally from the Syrian city of Afrin and carried out the attack on behalf of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which controls areas in northern Syria. She reportedly confessed to Turkish authorities that she was trained by the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has said it had nothing to do with the attack.

Turkey considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the PKK, which is classified as a terrorist organization in the European Union and the United States. On Monday, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu once again accused Washington of supporting "terrorist organizations," saying the attack was perpetrated by the PKK, and that the PKK is supported by the US.

"We reject the American Embassy's condolences," he said, adding that it was necessary to discuss whether a country whose Senate sends money to the Syrian town of Kobani is a good ally. Kobani came to international attention when the YPG defended the town against the "Islamic State" (IS) in 2015.

Turkey has long been frustrated by US cooperation with Kurdish militias in Syria in the fight against IS. Ankara also justified its recent veto of NATO's enlargement to include Sweden and Finland with their alleged support for the YPG.

A bald man in a black suit speaks at a lectern, flanked by Turkish flags
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu accused the PKK of orchestrating Sunday's attackImage: Depo Photos/imago images

There is also discussion among the Turkish public that the bombing could serve as an excuse for an already announced Turkish military operation in Syria. Even before the investigation was complete, Turkish officials had made the case for a new military operation in northern Syria, said Berkay Mandiraci, a senior analyst on Turkey from the International Crisis Group, a transnational think tank that researches global conflicts.

Several months ago, Erdogan said on a number of occasions that Turkey could "come suddenly one night," Madiraci said, adding that the Turkish president has also stressed that his government wants to "fix" his country's security concerns "with new operations." 

Attack could have economic impact

In addition to political fallout, the November 13 attack could also have an economic impact, especially if it motivates tourists to stay away, just as they did a few years ago.

Turkey is already in a deep economic crisis, with annual inflation rate currently over 85%, according to official figures, which may well be reporting the situation generously. According to independent experts at the Inflation Research Group, in reality the inflation rate could be over 185%.

With reporting by Burcu Karakas.