Turkey arrests YouTubers who talk to the public about financial woes

Authorities arrest three independent journalists chronicling public frustration with an economy in freefall

Borzou Daragahi
International Correspondent
Monday 13 December 2021 18:41 GMT
Turkey’s lira has hit an all-time low, dropping 40 per cent in a few weeks
Turkey’s lira has hit an all-time low, dropping 40 per cent in a few weeks (EPA-EFE)

Turkey has cracked down on several independent YouTube journalists whose interviews with ordinary people on the streets have given voice to the country’s economic frustrations as its currency continues an unprecedented downward tailspin.

In several pre-dawn Sunday raids covered by Turkish media, authorities detained three journalists who had gained followings online by posting so-called “man-on-the-street” interviews with Turks complaining about the impact of economic woes on their lives.

Such voices are mostly absent on broadcast media that is largely controlled by the state or supporters of Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“We are journalists trying to make the voices of the people on the street heard in the palaces,” Mehmet Oyuncu, one of the three journalists, wrote in a tweet. “Every day, they try to intimidate us with violent provocateurs, detentions and arrests, but we have not taken a step back.”

According to media reports, all of the journalists – based in the southern province of Antalya – were released from detention but ordered to remain under house arrest, effectively blocking them from further reporting.

The arrests were ordered following a complaint filed by Mucahit Birinci, a leading lawmaker in Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), according to local news reports. They came a day after Mr Erdogan warned in a speech that social media was “the main threat to democracy”.

“With the proliferation of social media channels, the lies, manufactured news, we see that disinformation spreads rapidly,” he reportedly said in a speech on Saturday. “Millions of people’s lives are darkened due to such news spread from these channels where there is no effective control mechanism.”

Turkey’s parliament, under the control of Mr Erdogan’s coalition, is reportedly drafting a law to further criminalise the spread of what the government describes as fake news and disinformation online, a move which has alarmed press freedom advocates worried that any laws could be used to further jail opposition journalists.

On Sunday the independent news website 140journos published an hour-long documentary on YouTube and elsewhere alleging ties between the government and organised crime, in particular exiled admitted criminal figure Sedat Peker, whose sensational YouTube videos earlier this year roiled the Ankara political elite and contributed to the AKP’s woes ahead of the 2023 elections.

Turkey’s economy has been under strain for several years. Increasing inflation and persistent unemployment have wiped out Turks’ savings and purchasing power. But the last few weeks have been particularly harsh. Mr Erdogan’s pressure to keep interest rates low, part of a decades-long hostility to usury rooted in his pious Muslim beliefs, has severely damaged the lira. On Monday it was down to an all-time low of about 14 lira to one US dollar, a deterioration of about 40 per cent in the space of a few weeks.

Mr Erdogan’s popularity is sliding amid Turkey’s economic freefall
Mr Erdogan’s popularity is sliding amid Turkey’s economic freefall (EPA-EFE)

The Peker ties and other corruption allegations, falling currency and dramatic price hikes have badly damaged the standing of Mr Erdogan, the AKP and its far-right National Movement Party (MHP) coalition partner. A poll conducted two weeks ago by the credible Akam agency showed the AKP and MHP with a total of 35 per cent support, compared to 54 per cent for a possible coalition of opponents, and 10 per cent for other opposition parties.

The street interviews by the YouTubers, although sometimes criticised as unprofessional and poorly edited, show ordinary Turks venting their frustrations or engaging in lively debates about the state of the economy. In one recent video, several school-aged boys complain about the price of books for their studies.

“They could use some editorial filters and knowledge of how the interviews should be released without generating criminal complaints,” said Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative for Reporters Sans Frontiers. “But there is a clear public benefit to hear about people’s concerns from the street.”

The journalists also appear to strive for balance, giving pro-government voices a platform as well. “All foreign states are treating us as enemies,” one man said in a 20 November interview published by Kendine Muhabir, reflecting the government line that the drop in currency is part of an international conspiracy.

“The people are suffering; drop this talk about foreign powers,” another man chimes in. “One piece of gold has become twice the minimum wage.”

Many Turks have seen their savings wiped out and are struggling to get by
Many Turks have seen their savings wiped out and are struggling to get by (EPA-EFE)

Mr Onderoglu said the political climate is such that both government supporters and opponents wind up underscoring the country’s deep troubles. “Even when the pro-government people are interviewed in the street the argument in favour of the government is not convincing,” he told The Independent in an interview. “All agree that there is a deep financial crisis and political corruption issue and all kinds of wrongdoings. In favour of the government or against, all of these street activities are seen as a threat.”

Despite positive talk in the pro-government media, the country’s financial woes have taken centre stage. On Monday, the country’s finance minister Nureddin Nebati alarmed investors and ordinary Turks with fatalistic remarks about the economy in an interview that was less than assuring.

“If we win, we’ll win together. If we lose, we’ll lose together,” he told the news website HaberTurk, in remarks that were seen by financial analysts as adding further pressure on the lira.

Opposition officials, including members of the country’s main opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP), said the arrests of the YouTubers underscored the weaknesses and failures of the current government, which appears unable to come up with an economic policy that could halt the lira’s freefall and instead is focused on messaging.

“It is helplessness to detain YouTube youth, who listen to the troubles of our nation with street interviews and hand a microphone to the troubled citizen,” Fethi Açıkel, a CHP member of parliament, wrote on Twitter.

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