Partisan media and lack of accountability fuels Turkey’s health and economic crises

This week yet another crisis struck Turkey, this time springing out of Istanbulites’ bowls of spinach.

More than a hundred residents of the city were taken to hospital after eating tainted portions of the vegetable. The Istanbul authorities said the outbreak had been caused by a plant from the nightshade family getting mixed into the spinach, but Islamist daily Karar quoted experts and opposition politicians as saying this explanation did not hold water.

Whatever the true cause of the outbreak, there is good reason to see it as a foreboding sign for Turkey. The spinach poisoning came days after a family of six fell victim to food poisoning in Kayseri, central Turkey. Their four-year-old daughter Saliha died.

That same week, 50 workers at a factory in Istanbul’s Esenyurt district were taken to hospital for food poisoning, followed by a further 30 the following day.

On Nov. 3, Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT reported that 67 people had been taken to hospital for food poisoning in the western Afyonkarahisar province.

Another 15 were treated for food poisoning in Kırıkkale, central Turkey on Nov. 2 after eating at a döner restaurant.

There have been reports of cases of food poisoning with high numbers of victims stretching back to the summer in Izmir, Safranbolu, Karabük, Manisa and more cities in Turkey, while 143 soldiers came down with food poisoning in on instance in Sakarya in September.

Going back further, the most serious cases of last year included an instance where 2,600 workers at a factory in Izmir were taken to hospital for suspected food poisoning and an anthrax outbreak that resulted in quarantines being imposed in cities across Turkey.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it does demonstrate a persistent problem with food safety standards. The culprit in many of these instances appeared to be catering companies that provide food to workplaces, while reports at the time said anthrax had been brought to Turkey by inadequately checked imported livestock.

Reports like these are a warning sign of the need for tighter oversight on public health matters. But the lack of accountability for these and other significant public health matters makes it all the more likely that they will continue occurring.

Especially in a country where those who are caught out or are affected by negative news can simply borrow the government’s discourse to deny any responsibility. Though the market vendors surely bear no blame for the poisoning of spinach, the declaration by one that conspiratorial actors were playing a “game” through spinach was a sign of this.

The media plays a large role in this, as we were reminded again this week in other cases of poisoning, this time far more tragic.

On Wednesday, police in Istanbul discovered the bodies of four siblings aged between 40 and 60 who are believed to have poisoned themselves with cyanide.

A warning sign had been left on the outer door of their flat in Istanbul’s Fatih district, and the two brothers and two sisters are believed to have committed suicide.

Neighbours reported that the siblings were experiencing serious financial problems, a point underlined by the arrival of a worker from the electricity provider to cut power to their home over an unpaid bill after their death.

But pro-government outlets seemed unwilling to report the most obvious explanation for the incident, and a striking example of the economic woes faced by many.

Instead, CNN Türk asked in its sensational headline whether the four had killed themselves or whether the incident was a murder-suicide – even though the police officer quoted in the piece said all signs pointed to suicide and none to the other scenario. High on the list of the inquisitive journalist’s list of questions was whether any alcohol had been found in the flat.

Meanwhile, Yeni Akit blamed the suicide on the presence in the family’s flat of a book on atheism by British biologist Richard Dawkins.

And Sabah, the newspaper closely linked to Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, went even further with a piece painting reports of the siblings’ financial problems as a smear.

But days later, another family of four had been found dead, this time in the southern province of Antalya, and again poison was the suspected cause of death and poverty the suspected motive. The father of the family left a note saying there was “nothing else to be done,” and he, his wife and their two children were discovered dead of suspected poisoning early on Saturday morning.

Though the manner of both incidents was shocking, they are far from isolated. Turkey’s suicide rate has been highlighted in the media as a cause for concern since at least 2015, when at least 18.1 percent – and probably many more – of the 3,189 suicides were blamed on poverty. The rate has remained above 3,000.

And economic conditions have only become worse. So bad, in fact, that there has been a string of self-immolations since last year by unemployed men whose situation had gone beyond the point of despair.

Shocking as these incidents are, the media outlets that have far the greatest audience in Turkey will ignore or obfuscate the facts if they paint the government in a bad light. And those that do point fingers can simply be shrugged off as conspirators in the great game against Turkey.