Turkey: police investigate false online rumours that Erdoğan has died
Thirty people are facing legal proceedings after Turkish police launched an investigation into the spread of rumours on social media that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had died.
Twitter users who posted under the trending hashtag “olmuş” – roughly “is said to be dead” – were being investigated for sharing “disinformation and manipulative content”, a police statement issued on Wednesday said.
Separately, Erdoğan’s personal lawyers filed a complaint with the Ankara public prosecutor’s office, requesting that the relevant Twitter users be investigated on charges of “insulting” the president, which can be punished with a prison term of up to four years.
Erdoğan’s health has been the subject of on-and-off speculation since 2011, when one of his doctors was forced to go on record to deny that the Turkish leader had cancer. Erdoğan, now 67, underwent serious stomach surgery in 2012.
The latest wave of rumours appears to have been sparked by footage from last week’s G20 summit in Rome, in which the president appeared to have trouble walking. The Turkish leader’s last-minute decision not to attend the Cop26 talks in Glasgow, citing a dispute over security protocols, and his absence from a celebration on Wednesday marking the 19th anniversary of his party’s ascent to power, fuelled the fire.
He also appeared unwell, at times slurring his speech, in a video to mark Bayram (Eid) in July.
Erdoğan’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, and several politicians from the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) refuted the claims that the president was ill, tweeting videos and images of the president at recent engagements.
“The chief has arrived from Istanbul to Ankara. He is very healthy. Those who try to bite him would lose their teeth,” the deputy party leader, Ahmet Hamdi Çamlı, tweeted.
Last month, Erdoğan’s official Twitter account posted a video of the Turkish leader playing basketball with his aides after opposition politicians began questioning whether he was physically and mentally fit for office.
“My political life was spent struggling against Erdoğan … My only hope is that Erdoğan is fit and healthy at the [next] elections and that he accounts to the people at the ballot box,” tweeted Aykut Erdoğdu, the deputy leader of the opposition Republican People’s party.
Turkey is due to hold a general election before June 2023. While human rights groups say the country’s institutions have been weaponised against Erdoğan’s opponents during his nearly 20 years in office, the country’s struggling economy has led support for his party to ebb to historic lows.
Publicly “denigrating” the Turkish republic, Turkishness and the head of state has been illegal in Turkey since 1926, but the number of criminal complaints filed skyrocketed after Erdoğan, previously the prime minister, became president in 2014.
More than 160,000 investigations have been launched and nearly 13,000 people have been convicted for “insulting” the president in the last seven years, according to justice ministry data.
Also this week, Turkish media reported that a journalist had been sentenced to two years in prison for insulting the president by sharing a 300-year-old Ottoman poem on Facebook, and a 96-year-old woman from Şanlıurfa would stand trial for comments in a video posted to social media in which she “used remarks that can be offending to the president’s honour and respectability”.
In a decision last month, the European court of human rights ruled that a man who was detained for Facebook posts critical of Erdoğan in 2017 had had his right to freedom of expression violated. The court called on Turkey to change the law and pay recompense to those charged – but while the Strasbourg body’s rulings are binding, Ankara has often ignored them.