Turkey's War on Political Cartoonists
By MICHAEL DICKINSON
I first came to live in Istanbul nearly twenty years ago there were only two
television channels and a couple of radio stations, all state-run. Films were
censored, and the Turkish music scene was conventional to say the least, with
few pop stars under the age of thirty. People were drably dressed, and there
wasn't much to do at night but go to a smoky dingy bar or coffee house, where
the clientele was strictly male.
The changes I've witnessed during my time here
have been amazing. Now, apart from worldwide programmes beamed in from
satellite, there are masses of Turkish channels ranging from excellent to tat;
loads of radio stations to choose from, many featuring Turkish rock, rap and
hip-hop belted out by energetic young singers who suddenly seemed to appear from
nowhere in the nineties; the bustling streets are filled with trendily dressed
folk on their way to smart bars, cafes and discos where males and females mix
A remarkably liberal relaxation in philosophy
and attitude. But even twenty years ago there were always the hugely popular
weekly Turkish comics 'Limon', 'Girgir', 'Penguen' outrageous and anarchic,
often black and sick, but always very funny, pitilessly lampooning Turkish
behaviour, no holds barred on sex, politics or religion. Armed with a dictionary
they were my most enjoyable way of learning the Turkish language and culture. No
President or politician escaped satirical scrutiny, the spotlight of derision
focused on their foibles and corruption. These comics were a breath of fresh
air, a genuine example of freedom of expression.
So I was dismayed to learn last week that the
Prime Minister of Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan, who has long championed himself as an
advocate of free speech, having been jailed himself in 1999 for reciting a poem
deemed 'anti-state', has declared war against the cartoonists.
After successfully suing the left wing
newspaper 'Evrensel' last year for portraying him as a horse being led by one of
his advisers, in February this year he sued political cartoonist Musa Kart for
depicting him as a cat tangled in a ball of wool in the daily 'Cumhuriyet',
claiming he found the cartoon "deeply humiliating". Kart was fined 3500 dollars
on charges of 'assailing Erdogan's honor'.
A second suit against a smaller newspaper for
reprinting the cartoon was thrown out of court.
"People who are under public light are forced
to endure criticism in the same way that they endure applause", said Judge
Mithat Ali Kabaali in his ruling. . 'A prime minister who was forced to serve a
long jail term for reciting a poem should show more tolerance to these kinds of
To show solidarity with fellow cartoonist
Kart, the weekly satirical magazine 'Penguen' devoted its February 24 front
cover to drawings of Erdogan with the body of a camel, a frog, a monkey, a
snake, a duck and an elephant, under the title "The World of Tayyip".
The incensed Prime Minister retaliated by
filing a new lawsuit against the publishing house, claiming the pictures
"attacked his individual rights" and demanding 30000 dollars in compensation for
"We were not surprised by the news," said the
editor, Selcuk Erdem. "We printed the drawings as a message to say that
cartoonists cannot be silenced."
"This was a test of the sincerity of the prime
minister who says he wants Turkey to be a member of the European Union," Erdem
said. "He has shown his true face."
Turkey's best-known political cartoonists
gathered in Istanbul on Wednesday to protest legal action taken by the prime
minister against artists who criticized him through their work.
Members of the Turkish Cartoonists Assn.
accuse Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of trying to stifle free expression
even as Turkey is preparing to launch talks to win membership in the European
"We cartoonists have long faced pressure from
politicians," Metin Peker, the association's president, said at a news
"Just as we thought those dark days were over,
we have been confronted with this."
Although Turkey has been my home for the last
twenty years I have usually avoided any comment of the political scene here in
my own collage work, more inspired by the shenanigans of Bush and Blair and
their cronies, but yesterday I decided to break that rule and show defiance to
despotism and solidarity with the cartoonists of Turkey by adding to my site of
collages this picture of Bush and Erdogan, whom he describes as a 'personal
is a writer and artist who works as an English teacher in Istanbul, Turkey. He
designed the cover art for two CounterPunch books,
Serpents in the Garden and
Dime's Worth of Difference,
as well as
Grand Theft Pentagon, forthcoming from Common Courage Press. He can be
contacted through his website of collage pictures at