Turkish economy struggles, government weighs censoring critical reports

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.

But rather than tackling the grave issues troubling millions of people in Turkey, the government is reportedly mulling laws that would make it a crime to report on the economic woes that led to the two incidents.

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 the authorities over debts. She was facing 21 foreclosure suits.

In the southern Turkish province of Antalya, an unemployed father who had been unable to pay rent for nine months used cyanide to kill himself, his wife and their two young daughters.

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

The father is 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 – at the very least – contributed to both incidents. The truth is that both families had come to the point where they could no longer get by in their daily lives.

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

But in the face of the harsh criticism, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government’s spokesmen have chosen to remain silent on an issue they would rather keep off the agenda.

Meanwhile, pro-government columnists have denied any economic motivation for the Istanbul suicide, saying instead 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 all 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 (AKP) are able to have their debt restructured or even forgiven. On the other, millions of ordinary people face legal action when unable to repay their debts.

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

But the government is unhappy when the 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 Güngör, a columnist for the pro-government Sabah daily, wrote a column advocating punitive action against critical comments from journalists and social media users on the economy, and said she had received information that a law being prepared that would prevent people from commenting as they please about the economy.

The reforms would set a prison sentence of between six months and five years, as well as fines, for people deemed guilty of spreading “false and misleading information” that could significantly impact the currency and economy, Güngör 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 economist, analysts, academics and others subject to prison sentences or fines.

News reports like Güngör’s have already intimidated critical commentators before the legal amendments have even officially been announced. Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s son-in-law, took things a step further last week 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 Güngör’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 high numbers of firms going bankrupt, being forced to seek bankruptcy protection or laying off staff, and sharp rises in inflation and bad debt.

Meanwhile, 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 press conferences.

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

“But 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 Erdoğan Toprak, a member of parliament for the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

“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 in an effort 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.

“Isn’t this misleading and cheating Turkish society and the business world? The data is there for anyone to see.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.