Turkish economy struggles, government weighs censoring critical reports

The opposition linked the suicides to the economic crisis that has affected Turkey since a currency meltdown hit in the summer of 2018.
Saturday 16/11/2019
A man looks at cheeses at a shop at the historical spice bazaar at Eminonu district in Istanbul, on July 13. (AFP)
A man looks at cheeses at a shop at the historical spice bazaar at Eminonu district in Istanbul, on July 13. (AFP)

LONDON - In the space of one week, two Turkish families of four died in incidents involving suicide, shocking the country. The apparent motive in both was poverty.

Rather than tackling the serious issues troubling millions of people in Turkey, the government is reportedly considering laws that would make it a crime to report on the economic woes such as those that led to the two deaths.

In the first incident, four adult siblings in Istanbul killed themselves by taking cyanide. Two brothers and one sister had long been unemployed and were drowning in debt. The only working sister’s salary had been seized by authorities over debts. She was facing 21 foreclosure suits.

In Antalya, in southern Turkey, an unemployed father, unable to pay rent for nine months, used cyanide to kill himself, his wife and their two young daughters.

He left a suicide note that spoke of his desperation at the family’s bleak economic situation, including a list of debts.

The father was reviled by many as a murderer but there is no doubt about the tragedy of his family’s story or about the abject financial situations that must have contributed to both incidents. The truth is that both families had reached the point they could no longer get by in their daily lives.

The opposition linked the suicides to the economic crisis that has affected Turkey since a currency meltdown hit in the summer of 2018, knocking nearly 30% off the lira’s value against the dollar by year’s end.

In the face of the harsh criticism, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his spokesmen chose to remain silent on an issue they would rather keep off the agenda.

Pro-government columnists have denied any economic motivation for the Istanbul suicide, saying that the presence of a book on atheism by British academic Richard Dawkins may have motivated it.

Given the oppressive and prohibitive atmosphere the government has fostered in Turkey and its use of police and judicial repression to shut down political or civil opposition, the suicides could be viewed as a kind of protest by people who had no other way of speaking out.

On the one hand, companies with ties to the ruling Justice and Development Party have their debt restructured or forgiven. On the other, millions of people face legal action when unable to pay debts.

Using a new electronic debt recovery system, the Turkish Treasury and Finance Ministry has, in recent weeks, blocked nearly 4 million people’s salaries and bank accounts over unpaid debts.

However, the government is unhappy when facts about the economy are reported. There have been reports in pro-government media that it is preparing legal changes that would classify what it calls “economic doom-mongering” as a crime.

Dilek Gungor, a columnist for the pro-government Sabah newspaper, wrote advocating punitive action against critical comments from journalists and social media users on the economy and said she received information about a law being prepared that would prevent people from commenting as they please on the Turkish economy.

The reforms would set a prison sentence of up to 5 years as well as fines for people deemed guilty of spreading “false and misleading information” that could significantly affect the currency and economy, Gungor said.

To this end, amendments are being prepared for Turkey’s capital market, trade and monetary laws as well as the penal code that could see dissident economists, analysts, academics and others subject to prison sentences or fines.

Reports such as Gungor’s intimidated critical commentators before the legal amendments have officially been announced. Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law, took things a step further by accusing analysts who criticised the government’s policies of terrorism.

“Some people are going to step forward who call themselves economists and professors but actually they’re working to harm the country... and we don’t see those who try to create negative perceptions of Turkey as any different to terrorists,” said Albayrak.

The minister’s statements add weight to Gungor’s report that legislation banning critical commentary on the economy is being prepared. In any case, figures from Turkey’s business world have been holding their silence for a long time.

The country’s largest business associations have not commented despite a dismal period that has seen a large number of firms going bankrupt, being forced to seek bankruptcy protection or laying off staff, and sharp rises in inflation and bad debt.

Workers and public servants who protest their conditions are attacked by police and arrested. In most provinces, the government-appointed governors routinely prohibit public demonstrations, including news conferences.

The government even took legal measures against onion and potato producers last year in response to price inflation for staple goods. When high prices raised a public outcry, the government accused grocers of stockpiling to manipulate prices, an act it called “food terrorism.” Now it is economists who are facing similar treatment.

“If anyone is to be accused of economic manipulation, lies and misdirection, it should be the president and his son-in-law, Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak,” said Erdogan Toprak, a member of parliament for the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party.

“They are the ones who demanded that millions of people changed their gold and foreign currency savings for lira,” Toprak said, referring to calls the government made during last year’s currency crisis to stem the fall of the lira.

“Millions of people lost money and the lira didn’t regain value. Then they announced a host of new economic programmes and set targets but achieved none of them,” he said.