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Erdogan to punish media for ‘harmful content,’ fires officials over high inflation

Turkey’s president says measures to be taken over material ‘incompatible with national and moral values’; officials sacked after data shows inflation hitting 19-year high

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a press conference in Ankara, on January 20, 2022. (Adem Altan/AFP)
President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a press conference in Ankara, on January 20, 2022. (Adem Altan/AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AFP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan 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 dissent.

He also sacked his justice minister and the head of the state of the 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 crackdown on freedom of speech in the run-up to elections next year.

Faruk Bildirici, veteran journalist and media ombudsman, accused Erdogan on Twitter 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 Erdogan survived a failed coup attempt in July 2016.

Inflation anger

In an earlier decree on Saturday, Erdogan sacked state statistics agency chief Sait Erdal Dincer.

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

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

A portrait of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hangs in a money exchange shop in Istanbul, Turkey, on Monday, December 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

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

The opposition said the number was underreported, claiming that the real cost of living increases was at least twice as high.

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

Dincer seemed to sense his impending fate.

“I sit in this office now, tomorrow it will be someone else,” he said in an interview with the business newspaper Dunya 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?”

Erdogan did not explain his decision to appoint Erhan Cetinkaya, 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, Erdogan appointed a new justice minister, naming former deputy prime minister Bekir Bozdag to replace veteran ruling party member Abdulhamit Gul who had been in the role since 2017.

Ali Babacan, former deputy prime minister who left the ruling AKP party and founded the Deva Party, took to Twitter to vent fury over the changes.

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

Ali Babacan, an economist, who held various high level government positions between 2002-2015, announces the details of the program of his new political party, Remedy, in Ankara, Turkey, on March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

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

In December, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu was turned away by security guards when he sought to enter the statistics 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 Erdogan’s presidential complex.

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