Turkish media organisations, including independent news outlets, chose to ignore the massacre in Iraq’s Zakho (Zaxo) district on 20 July, instead covering only official statements about the issue.
Nine people, including three children, were killed and over 20 others were wounded when the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) shelled civilians in Zakho, a district in Iraqi Kurdistan. Footage of the attack and its aftermath circulated on social media, prompting international outrage and extensive coverage by global media outlets. Yet many quickly noted the deafening silence from the Turkish media.
Only two newspapers in Turkey gave the massacre front page coverage on 21 July: Evrensel, a left-leaning daily, and Yeni Yaşam, which focuses on the Kurdish issue. While Evrensel chose the headline, “TSK’s shells hit Zakho: Casualties Reported,” Yeni Yaşam’s headline was more direct: “Massacre in Zakho.”
Speaking to Medya News, journalist and author Ragıp Duran said online news outlets had remained silent for over 12 hours after the attack – longer than the silence in the aftermath of the 2011 Roboski Massacre, in which a Turkish Air Force jet killed 34 Kurdish villagers in the province of Şırnak (Şırnex).
The long silence before reporting on the Zakho attack came as many outlets waited for the Turkish Foreign Ministry to release a statement before publishing their own reports, said Duran.
“The hegemonic news outlets and those that falsely see themselves as opposition covered that statement,” Duran said. “They didn’t cover the incident itself, but rather covered the reaction to it.”
Instead, front pages on Sabah, Milliyet and many other pro-government newspapers focused on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s call for the United States to withdraw its troops from Northern Syrian territories east of the Euphrates river. Posta chose an environmental incident in Turkey as its main story, while Cumhuriyet ran an interview on expropriation and popular pro-government daily Hürriyet covered the increase in COVID cases in Turkey.
The Turkish government’s control over the country’s media landscape has been noted by organisations including Reporters Without Borders, and the suppression of unfavourable stories by media organisations is commonplace. But even outlets which present themselves as independent adopted the government’s line on Zakho, said Duran.
“These outlets oppose the Erdoğan regime, but they are no different than [staunchly Islamist and pro-government newspapers] Yeni Şafak and Akit when it comes to the Kurdish issue, Armenians, LGBT, secularism, Kemalism and foreign policy matters. They share the same beliefs,” he said, stressing that Cumhuriyet’s record is especially dark on the Kurds.
The initial silence on the massacre turned to denial in the following days, with most dailies featuring official statements on the issue. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s remarks about the TSK not targeting civilians were given wide coverage, and media organisations followed his lead in their reports. Columnists from Milliyet and Türkgün denied Turkish responsibility for the massacre, with the latter blaming the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
This practice of relying on official statements as the basis of reporting is so engrained in Turkish media that it is even taught to journalism students, Duran said.
“Official statements are accepted as absolutely true although there is no rule proving this,” he noted.
Duran added that the Turkish media outlets’ silence was unsurprising given the history of reporting in the country.
“The first daily was published in 1831 on this soil and since then, Turkish hegemonic media has been acting as the state’s media. They’ve been siding with the government, the state and the official ideology. The Kurdish issue is a major problem in this ideology,” Duran said.
“Although the media is under direct state control, no one needs to specifically give orders to these media outlets’ managers because they also share those beliefs. They choose to ignore these events and engage in misinformation,” he said.
Duran noted similarities between today’s coverage and how Turkish newspapers in past eras covered state violence against Kurds, such as the Sheikh Said uprisings of 1925 and the Dersim Massacres of 1937 and 1938.
“In both of these past events, the media was silent for three to four weeks and the language used was heavily racist,” he said.
Duran said that he agreed with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in deeming the Zakho massacre a “second Roboski” and that the shelling was made possible due to the silence in the aftermath of Roboski.
“If [Roboski] was questioned and the perpetrators were tried, the possibility of this massacre would be lowered. New attacks are encouraged when there is impunity. Future attacks and illegal military acts can continue if this one is not thoroughly examined as well,” he said.
Calling on journalists to conduct a thorough investigation into the massacre, Duran said journalists in Turkey must begin asking questions if they are to reveal the truth.
“It’s the duty of a journalist to do the digging,” he concluded.