Erdoğan threatens to punish Turkish media over ‘harmful content’

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Saturday threatened Turkish media with legal action over content “incompatible with national and moral values,” in a move seen by critics as an attempt to stifle the dissent, Agence France-Presse reported.

He also sacked his justice minister and the head of the state statistics agency after it published official data showing last year’s inflation rate hit a 19-year high.

The Turkish leader said in a decree that “it has become requisite to take necessary measures to protect (families, children and the youth) against harmful media content.”

He urged authorities to take “legal action” against the “destructive effects” of some media content — without revealing what that would entail.

Critics said it was another bid to crack down on freedom of speech in the run-up to elections next year.

Faruk Bildirici, veteran journalist and media ombudsman, accused Erdoğan of declaring a “state of emergency against the media.”

Rights groups routinely accuse Turkey of undermining media freedom by arresting journalists and shutting down critical media outlets, especially since Erdoğan survived a failed coup attempt in July 2016.

Erdoğan on Wednesday promised that well-known television journalist Sedef Kabaş would not go “unpunished” after she was jailed for allegedly insulting him.

Inflation anger

In an earlier decree on Saturday, Erdoğan sacked state statistics agency chief Sait Erdal Dinçer.

It was just the latest in a series of economic dismissals by Erdoğan, who has fired three central bank governors since July 2019.

Erdoğan has railed against high interest rates, which he believes cause inflation — the exact opposition of conventional economic thinking.

The 2021 inflation figure of 36.1 percent released by Dinçer angered both the pro-government and opposition camps.

The opposition said the real cost of living increases were at least twice as high.

Erdoğan meanwhile reportedly criticized the statistics agency in private for publishing data that he felt overstated the scale of Turkey’s economic malaise.

Statistics agency chief Dinçer had sensed his impending fate.

“I sit in this office now, tomorrow it will be someone else,” he said in an interview with the business newspaper Dünya earlier this month.

“Never mind who is the chairman. Can you imagine that hundreds of my colleagues could stomach or remain quiet about publishing an inflation rate very different from what they had established?”

Erdoğan did not explain his decision to appoint Erhan Çetinkaya, who had served as vice-chair of Turkey’s banking regulator, as the new state statistics chief.

“This will just increase concern about the reliability of the data, in addition to major concerns about economic policy settings,” Timothy Ash of BlueBay Asset Management said in a note to clients.

The agency is due to publish January’s inflation data on February 3.

Justice minister also sacked

Also on Saturday, Erdoğan appointed a new justice minister, naming former deputy prime minister Bekir Bozdağ to replace veteran ruling party member Abdülhamit Gül who had held the job since 2017.

Ali Babacan, former deputy prime minister who left the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) party and founded the Deva Party, took to Twitter to vent his fury.

“The justice minister is being replaced, (statistics agency) TUIK chairman is being dismissed before the inflation data is published. Nobody knows why,” he said.

“The authoritarian alliance… keeps on harming the country,” he said, referring to the AKP and its nationalist partner Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said Erdoğan had thrown the statistics agency’s chief “in the trash bin” and urged bureaucrats to oppose the Turkish leader’s policies.

“Otherwise you’ll face the same fate,” he warned.

In December, Kılıçdaroğlu was turned away by security guards when he sought to enter the statistic agency’s headquarters in Ankara.

He had accused the agency of “fabricating” the numbers to hide the true impact of the government’s policies and slammed it as “no longer a state institution but a palace institution”, in reference to Erdoğan’s presidential complex.

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