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Turkish internet celebrity faces prison for spreading disinformation about 2023 earthquakes

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Turkish social media celebrity Oğuzhan Uğur is facing a prison sentence of up to four-and-a-half years due to social media posts in the aftermath of the two powerful earthquakes last year that allegedly spread misleading information and obstructed search and rescue efforts, Turkish media outlets reported.

The magnitude 7.8 and 7.5 earthquakes affected 11 provinces in the country’s south and southeast on February 6, 2023, killing close to 60,000 people in Turkey and parts of Syria and leaving millions homeless.

Uğur is one of three defendants in an indictment drafted by the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Posts from the X account of Babala TV, Uğur’s YouTube channel, on February 7, claimed with an “urgent” note that the wall of the Yarseli Dam in Hatay, one of the hardest-hit provinces in the earthquakes, was cracked and that another dam in Kahramanmaraş, near the epicenter of the earthquakes, had collapsed. The posts called on search and rescue teams to be sent to the region, warning of flood risk due to heavy rain.

Similar reports that appeared in the Turkish media were later refuted by the authorities and discovered to be “inaccurate.”

The indictment accuses Uğur and the other two suspects of causing panic and fear among the people by spreading disinformation under Article 217/A of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK).

The law, which criminalizes the dissemination of “false or misleading information” and stipulates prison sentences of between one and three years, was passed in parliament in October 2022, drawing widespread criticism for being a draconian measure targeting free speech and independent journalists. It increases by half the penalty for offenders who hide their identity or act on behalf of an organization.

In his testimony to the prosecutors, Uğur said it was not him who posted the tweets about the dams from the X account of Babala TV. He said it was another suspect in the indictment, Kaan Kayacan, who posted the tweets about the dams. Kayacan, however, told prosecutors that he does not remember posting the tweets that trigged the investigation into them.

Uğur, who pioneered relief efforts following the earthquakes, said he and his team worked for days without sleep to help the earthquake victims and supported efforts for the collection of millions of lira in donations for the earthquake region.

“Our only goal was to help the victims,” he said.

A large group of volunteers organized by Uğur and his Babala TV team worked in cooperation with the Foundation of Anatolian People and Peace Platform (AHBAP), a popular relief organization, in the quake zone to collect aid and raise funds following the earthquakes.

Babala TV, which has gained popularity due to the audience being able to directly interact with guests and ask questions, has 4.7 million followers on YouTube.

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