Turkey anger turns to foreign media as Erdoğan son-in-law criticised

Turkey’s pro-government press are turning from slamming foreign banks to targeting leading international media outlets after they reported that investors were unimpressed by the presentation of an economic programme by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's son-in-law in the United States last week.

The Hürriyet and Sabah newspapers were among publications who hit out at the organisations, who included the Financial Times, Bloomberg and Reuters, in fiery articles at the weekend.

The anger stems from reports published by the news groups that Turkish Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak's speech at the JPMorgan event in Washington D.C. got a lacklustre reception. Albayrak is married to Erdoğan's daughter Esra. He was appointed controversially by Erdoğan last summer.

Hürriyet, one of Turkey’s best-selling newspapers, labeled the articles as an ugly attack, black propaganda and part of what it called a "perception operation".

Albayrak has announced the economic plan, which includes lending Turkey's state-run banks 28 billion liras ($4.9 billion) in Turkish lira bonds, as the government grapples with an economic recession and inflation of almost 20 percent. Some investors and economists are saying the measures envisaged by Albayrak are inadequate and are urging Erdoğan to sign a new loan accord with the International Monetary Fund to help put the economy on a surer footing.

"It's clearly a bad sign when their only response if going after the message," Paul McNamara, who oversees more than $10 billion in emerging-market assets at Switzerland's GAM Investments, said in response to questions.

The criticism came as Mustafa Sönmez, a leading economist and government critic, was detained by police on Saturday for tweeting material seen as insulting to Erdoğan. He was released several hours later. The head of HSBC in Turkey was also in court last week to answer charges that he insulted the Turkish president. He was acquitted during the hearing.    

Erdoğan has long-held that Turkey’s economic ills, including a currency crisis last year, are part of a plot by foreign banks and governments to target Turkey and its global rise under his leadership. But the latest salvo against the foreign media's reporting of the economy is the harshest yet.

Sabah said the press reports were an attempt to smear the government and economy. It said investors actually welcomed the new economic programme, which it claimed heralded an era of long-awaited reforms following nationwide local elections on March 31. 

“I don’t think he persuaded anybody, it did not go well,” Reuters quoted one investor who attended the JPMorgan event as saying. Albayrak spoke on the sidelines of the IMF and World Bank spring meetings in the U.S. capital.

Media owners who are supporters of the government now dominate news coverage in Turkey.

Early last year, Hürriyet was bought by Demirören Group, which has close business links to the government. Sabah is run by Serhat Albayrak, Berat Albayrak’s brother.

The newspapers and television channels typically highlight the economic achievements of the government and often neglect to report data and news that show it in a bad light. The economy contracted for two-straight quarters in the second half of last year on a quarterly basis, denoting a technical recession.

But Albayrak has all but dismissed that an economic recession is taking place, despite a surge in unemployment and a slump in consumer confidence. At the Washington D.C. meeting, he reportedly highlighted a 5 percentage-point decline in inflation from a 15-year high and a sharp contraction in the current account deficit -- caused by a slump in demand for imports -- as key government achievements.

Freedom of speech in Turkey has deteriorated over the past decade as Erdoğan strengthened his grip on power. Police and prosecutors have arrested scores of Turkish journalists and jailed many on terrorism charges. Self-censorship is rife.

Government officials have also barred some foreign reporters who criticised the government from entering the country or revoked their press credentials.

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