Turkish scientists and physicians face criminal investigations after criticizing COVID-19 policies

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In April, Kayıhan Pala, a prominent public health expert at Uludağ University in northwestern Turkey, was shocked to find himself the target of a criminal complaint. Pala, a member of the COVID-19 monitoring group of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), had given an interview to a local website and shared research that showed the number of cases and deaths from the coronavirus were much higher than the government had reported. The complaint, filed by the governor of the province of Bursa, accused him of “misinforming the public” and “causing panic.”

Saying it was his job to speak out about a burgeoning health crisis, Pala called for the charges to be dismissed. Instead, the prosecutor’s office asked administrators at the university to investigate. Only after a monthslong investigation, and national and international condemnation from rights groups and health workers, did the university conclude on 1 September that Pala had acted within his duty.

“I am a public health scientist and I have to talk about this pandemic locally, nationally, and internationally,” Pala said. “It should not be a crime.”

Yet his case is far from unique. Critics say Turkish authorities are using judicial harassment and administrative investigations to stifle criticism and control information about the crisis. Since March, they have launched investigations against doctors, including leaders of local TTB chapters, after they discussed the government’s health policy and coronavirus information in traditional and social media. “Our colleagues have revealed the scientific facts, nothing beyond that,” says TTB Secretary General Bülent Nazım Yılmaz.

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