The pandemic exposes false hopes and laxness in Ankara’s response

Erdogan apparently hopes, perhaps pushed to wishful thinking by his sycophants, that the pandemic will be over in a few months.
Sunday 29/03/2020
Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca holds a press conference on the COVID-19 outbreak in Ankara.(AFP)
Contradicting the president. Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca holds a press conference on the COVID-19 outbreak in Ankara. (AFP)

“People are going to spend a lot of time online for the foreseeable future. So far, we have few examples of people returning to offline media once they have embraced online ones. And, yes, people are flocking to news sites and television news right now and we are all powerfully reminded of the importance of credible information. But it is unfortunately not at all clear that the public feel that news media are always the best, or even more credible, providers of such information.”

This is what Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, put in a recent article, emphasising that the burden the COVID-19 pandemic places on the media is nearly as heavy as the one on medical associations across the world.

If one is aware of how hard it is already for the media in a democratic world, one can only imagine the scale of the uphill battle in countries where the leadership’s automatic reflex is to suppress information.

Given the window of opportunity the pandemic has opened for authoritarian leaders — such as Viktor Orban in Hungary or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and some in the MENA region — many, no doubt, think they can secure their futures based on tighter measures made permanent even after the outbreak ends.

Turkey is one of the prime cases in this category. Despite that, in just ten days, confirmed cases of death spiked from zero to 75 and detected cases from zero to 3,629, as of March 27, authorities are still mumbling, uncritically amplified by a media that labours under the strict control of the Erdogan government.

Some projections warn that at the current rate of infection, as many as 4 million-5 million people in Turkey could be infected if Ankara does not fight back.

A few remaining critical outlets — no more than a handful — are feeling the heat from Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK). RTUK recently criticised television channels Halk TV, Tele1 and Haberturk for “spreading panic” and “inciting hatred” in their reporting of the pandemic. All the channels did was criticise the non-transparency of the regime.

RTUK, despite being composed of representatives of various parties, acts as an extension of the government because of the heavy domination of the ruling Justice and Development Party and its coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party.

The problem, in a broader context, is this: As opposed to many other governments, there is no “independent” state institution or council in Turkey. This is reflected in the so-called Science Committee, established in January by the Ministry of Health, consisting of 26 doctors and medical experts. Statements delivered by its members on the COVID-19 outbreak fall short of lucid facts, apparently filtered by the ministry before they are made public. The expertise of some of its members has been questioned, particularly after one appeared on television to describe the virus as the wrath of God.

No wonder that a considerable number of people are waking up with anxiety to new unknowns during these difficult days. The Turkish government’s laxness, exposed in the blurred language of state officials, is heavily coloured with religious rhetoric and accompanied by what many see as half-measures, such as only restricting movement for those above 65 years of age.

Add to this rising concern about the dark reality awaiting millions of refugees along the Syrian border and in cities such as Istanbul, is it any wonder that citizens live in a tense limbo?

The situation leaves most people unaware, as reported by alternative Turkish media sites such as Ahval and Duvar, that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is standing between solid measures to stop the spread of the virus. Reports tell of resistance in the palace for a tougher lockdown and an inclination instead to keep the weakening economy rolling as before.

The disagreement in Ankara places Erdogan, his son-in-law Finance Minister Berat Albayraka and a large group of greedy businesspeople against Health Minister Fahrettin Koca, backed by a large group of medical staff and bureaucrats.

Rumours speak of an ongoing battle with Koca, aware of the impulsive and obstinate Erdogan, having no choice but to bend to his insistence on half-measures.

Erdogan apparently hopes, perhaps pushed to wishful thinking by his sycophants, that the pandemic will be over in a few months. However, chances are that he will be proven wrong and face an even deeper crisis, both in terms of public health and state finances.