Turkey’s humorless ruling party cracks down on satirists

Cartoonists lampoon officials despite the growing threat of prison

April 18, 2015 2:00AM ET

On April 8, the chief Istanbul prosecutor charged two columnists for the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet with “inciting public hatred” for republishing the cover of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which features an image of the Prophet Muhammad. If convicted, the two journalists face up to four and a half years in prison.

The episode highlights Ankara’s growing sensitivity to the printed image and the threat facing those who challenge Turkey’s top officials.

Last year authorities charged Musa Kart, one of Turkey’s most prominent political cartoonists, with defaming President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a sketch that depicted a hologram of the president blithely watching the looting of government coffers. Kart faced a possible 10-year prison sentence but was acquitted in October.

Others were less fortunate. In March, Bahadir Baruter and Ozer Aydogan, cartoonists for the satirical magazine Penguen, were sentenced to nearly a year in prison for a drawing that prosecutors said featured a hand gesture suggesting Erdogan is gay. Their punishment was later reduced to a $2,700 fine.

Turkey has consistently ranked among the world’s leading jailers of journalists in recent years, and Erdogan has been challenging cartoonists in court for more than a decade. The current criminalization of satire dovetails with a media crackdown that has broadened since he became president in August.

Earlier this month, Turkey shut down Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, along with more than 160 websites, for publishing a photograph of a public prosecutor held hostage by armed leftists. Authorities threatened to block Google for the same offense. (The prosecutor was later killed during a shootout between his captors and the police.)

Since August, more than 70 people have been prosecuted for offending the president. More than 200 people — including a leading opposition politician, a former Miss Turkey, high school students and dozens of journalists — have been charged with insulting Erdogan for offenses ranging from a tweet to spitting on his car.

Yet cartoonists have remained bold. Political cartoons gained prominence in the wake of the nationwide Gezi protests two years ago, when humor emerged as a medium of resistance. Protesters mocked the police, who pasted water-bottle labels on the backs of their helmets to avoid being identified. They took photos next to a wall stencil of a smiling Erdogan, as a protest memento, and ironically embraced the penguin as a symbol of defiance after the state-run CNN Turk ignored the protests to run a documentary about penguins.

The crackdown on dissent has inspired a new generation of satirists online. Turkey’s Onion equivalent, Zaytung, which launched in 2009, has grown more popular in recent years. It now caters to more than 450,000 fans on Facebook. The Isengard Chamber of Commerce page, where “Lord of the Rings” characters talk Turkish politics, has more than 50,000 likes. Last month, a lawyer’s guild, the Libertarian Democrat Lawyers, depicted the harshness of Turkey’s new security law in a series of cartoons.

Erdogan’s administration seems to take censorship cues from Sultan Abdulhamid II, who bullied critics and clamped down harshly on cartoons.

Turkey’s more traditional cartoonists take inspiration from a rocky history that stretches back nearly a century and a half. Teodor Kasap launched the country’s first satirical magazine, Diyojen, in 1870, according to Middle Eastern studies scholar Efrat Aviv. Authorities closed Diyojen three times before it was permanently shut down in 1873.

Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) often acknowledges the influence of Sultan Abdulhamid II, who led the Ottoman Empire from 1876 to 1908 and sought to restore its waning power by promoting Islam abroad. Last August the AKP released a music video accompanying Ahmet Davutoglu’s nomination as prime minister, which referred to him as “the awaited spirit of Abdulhamid.”

Erdogan’s administration seems to take censorship cues from Abdulhamid, who bullied critics and clamped down harshly on cartoons. In 1877 his government sentenced Kasap to three years in prison for a cartoon condemning censorship. Contemporary practitioners have embraced this theme of defiance. In 1986, Prime Minister Turgut Ozal sued a Leman cartoonist for a series of cartoons titled “I won’t shut up.” The cover of the latest issue of Penguen magazine cover depicts a jailbird penguin marking the passage of his prison stint on the wall in the shape of an Erdogan caricature.

After Abdulhamid and particularly after the creation of the republic in 1923, political cartoons exploded. By the 1970s, Turkey was home to the world’s third-most-popular satirical magazine, Girgir, which declined in the wake of the 1980 military coup and was shuttered in 1993.

Cartoons have seen a resurgence over the past decade, in part because independent magazines and the new crop of online satirists enjoy greater freedom than mainstream outlets, which are run by conglomerates that must attract government tenders to survive. Facebook groups and publications such as Penguen, which don’t run advertisements or have concerns about insolvency, continue to thumb their noses at the powerful despite the threat of prison. 

Another reason for this resurgence is that humor seems completely lost on the Erdogan administration. A search of the racks of satirical magazines in Istanbul turns up a total of zero pro-government publications. In a 2013 article, Turkish journalist Pinar Tremblay found only one pro-AKP cartoonist in all of Turkey. Neither the AKP nor its backers do humor, at least not intentionally.

Yet government officials expose themselves to ridicule almost daily. A few weeks ago, Turkey suffered its worst power outage in 15 years, knocking out electricity across the country for up to a dozen hours. “We don’t know why the blackout occurred,” Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said a couple days later, after an initial investigation. “But it won’t happen again.”

Such tone-deaf statements make Turkish officials ideal targets for lampooning. But like most humorless people, they respond with aggression. For example, a high school student recently called Erdogan a dictator, and the president promptly jailed him — apparently missing the irony. The vehemence looks set to increase: Authorities will certainly use a clutch of new security and Internet laws to further stifle critical voices — activists, journalists, political opponents — in the lead-up to parliamentary elections in June.

Despite recent episodes of internal dissent, this week the AKP announced plans to use its expected electoral success to install a presidential system, further consolidating Erdogan’s power.

“When we adopt the presidential system, the majority of the problems we experience at the parliament will be over,” Erdogan told a group of tradesmen last month. “All obstructions will be lifted.”

The work of Turkey’s bold cartoonists will be even more necessary — and more dangerous — in the weeks ahead.

David Lepeska is a freelance writer based in Istanbul. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Financial Times, The Economist, The Guardian, Slate and other outlets.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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