Feb 10 2019

Food terrorism on the menu for Turkish media

Pro-government daily Türkiye invited Turkish Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan for an interview on Monday to discuss the government’s drive to combat price gouging by targeting businesses that raise prices in a way deemed unfair.

Turkey has been stricken with high inflation for the past year, and the high prices for staple goods have made headline since last year.

Pekcan explained that the government’s initiative to keep prices down has been driven by complaints from citizens whom the government has encouraged to inform on businesses that have raised prices.

“We have received 63,000 complaints (from citizens) and inspected 90,000 products,” Pekcan said, adding that 1,825 cases of weights and measures fraud and 6,500 instances of unfair competition had been discovered.

The fines levied on businesses caught out have exceeded 1 billion lira ($190 million), Pekcan said.

Left-wing daily Sözcü’s front page dealt with a topical issue ahead of the March 31 local elections – the municipal government of Konya, a central Anatolian city which is among the most indebted municipalities in the country, has decided to splash out on building a new cafeteria worth 3.67 million lira ($700,000) despite being burdened by almost 700 million lira debt.

Many of Turkey’s municipalities are reportedly drowning in debt, with those controlled by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) leading the pack of debtors.

The government is eager to keep the wheels turning in those municipalities ahead of the upcoming elections, and reportedly scrambled late last year to provide cover through state-run banks and the treasury.

The pro-government daily Star’s front page on Tuesday employed what is likely to be a weapon used frequently against the opposition in the run up to the elections: the allegation that the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has put itself in league with terrorists by agreeing to cooperate with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in key municipalities.

The HDP is the country’s second largest opposition party. However, the government has targeted the party since its peace talks with Kurdish militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) broke down in 2015, jailing several key members including former co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ.

Star’s front page took aim at CHP candidates in municipalities where the HDP had agreed to step aside, including in Izmir, the third largest city in Turkey. The newspaper called these candidates “HDP candidates wearing CHP masks,” and said the opposition had left Izmir to a “PKK candidate,” Tunç Soyer.

Sözcü’s front page had a different kind of terrorist in its sights: aubergines and peppers, which the newspaper explained had been targeted for raids and inspections by the government over alleged stockpiling.

These are staples of the Turkish kitchen, but consumers have been forced to pay prices better fitting luxury items for them after huge price rises.

Sözcü’s ironic headline reflects the feeling among many Turks that the government is treating ordinary food vendors and suppliers like criminals, despite the fact there is good reason to believe the price hikes are down to a shaky economic situation across Turkey and high costs driven by a weak lira.

On Wednesday images of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s meeting with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras were published on the front page of pro-government newspapers Yeni Şafak, Star, Türkiye and Akşam, along with a quote summing up Erdoğan’s message to his guest during the meeting: “Don’t become a port for terrorists.”

In this case the terrorists in question were followers of the Gülen religious movement, which Ankara says orchestrated the July 2016 coup attempt. Thousands of people linked to the movement have fled repression and possible imprisonment in Turkey to Greece, including eight Turkish servicemen who sought asylum in Greece on the night of the coup attempt, linking years of diplomatic wrangling between the neighbour countries.

Star’s front page demonstrated once again how pervasive use of the “Gülenist” label to smear political opponents has become, labelling both main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and Sözcü, a newspaper that has published highly critical articles on the movement for years, as linked to the Gülen organisation.

Secularist newspaper Cumhuriyet’s front page dealt with Erdoğan’s “threat” to transfer shares in İşbank, Turkey’s largest bank, from their current owners, the CHP, to the treasury.

The CHP was bequeathed the 28 percent stake in the bank in the will of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, the party and the bank. It is only allowed to use its proceeds from the shares to fund history and linguistic institutions. However, Erdoğan has complained that it is unfair for a political party to have such a business interest, and reiterated his intention to take them over on Tuesday, causing the bank’s stocks to slide 3 percent.

Star’s front page on Thursday reported comments by Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Finance and Treasury Minister Berat Albayrak, who unironically described the continuing price increases in January “food terrorism.”

Albayrak added that municipalities were being enlisted to sell cheap fruit and vegetables in response to the price hikes.

Türkiye reported on the İşbank shares on its front page, accusing the CHP of leeching off Atatürk’s legacy for 80 years.

Liberal Islamist daily Karar and several other critical newspapers devoted their front pages to the disaster in Kartal, a district in Istanbul where an eight-storey building collapsed, killing 12 and injuring many more.

The building, it turns out, was one of the thousands constructed illegally in Istanbul – an issue of particular significance since the AKP offered an amnesty allowing owners of illegal buildings to formalise their ownership documents before last year’s elections in June and has extended the period until the end of this year.

On Friday, Sözcü’s front page story stressed the fact that “the owners of the building that collapsed … had paid money to the state to benefit from the building amnesty,” noting that this policy had resulted in thousands of similarly unsafe buildings all over Turkey.

Pro-government newspaper Türkiye hit back, placing the blame squarely on the CHP municipality which it said had turned a blind eye to the illegal building since it was owned by a family member of a party official.