Je Suis Tayyip: exploring the limits of press freedom in modern Turkey

In January 2015 the Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu walked together with many of the world’s leaders on the streets of Paris to stand up for freedom of speech. It was only days later when he ordered the offices of one newspaper to be raided because it dared to republish some of Charlie Hebdo’s controversial cartoons.


“If you had a dictator, you couldn’t call him a dictator,” stated the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in a speech in the summer of 2013, when he was still prime minister. Not even two years later, in March 2015, the 23-year old student Aykutalp Avşar is sentenced to 14 months in prison for shouting a slogan that referred to Erdogan as a dictator.

All accusations and speculations about the increasing authoritarian turn of Turkey’s political leader aside, one could hardly ask for a more telling example of the state of freedom of speech in Turkey today.

Avşar’s case is by no means unique: since Erdogan was elected president in August 2014 more than 70 people have been prosecuted for “insulting” him. Sefer Selvi, a satirical cartoonist who has been working with a number of independent magazines and newspapers for over thirty years, believes these examples show something that is much more threatening than a mere lack of freedom of expression. “What IS [Islamic State] is trying to do with violence, killings and slavery, the Turkish government is trying to achieve by more ‘democratic’ means, using a different form of pressure.”

For Selvi, the suppression of freedom of expression, the government’s intrusion in people’s personal lives, the idolization of political leaders, the hate speech, repression and marginalization of everyone that dares to express critique of the country’s administration are pointing to a type of fascism which in the end is not very different from the close minded ideology that is driving radical jihadists across the Middle East.

A double-edged sword called ‘humor’

In a state where the corrupt leadership uses a discourse of religious fundamentalism and xenophobia to scare the population into submission there are few instruments of resistance as powerful as humor and satire. Ercan Akyol, a cartoonist with the Turkish daily Milliyet who started drawing political caricatures when he was a student in the early 1970s, believes that humor is the ideal weapon of a person who is in distress. “It’s function is to warn people, the oppressed, for what’s to come.” According to Akyol the power of humor stems from its possibility to mock, “to mock is to destroy the charisma of power.”

This thought must have been at the forefront of Prime Minister Davutoglu’s mind when upon returning from Paris where he joined other world leaders in the ‘Je Suis Charlie’-march to condemn the attacks on the offices of the French satirical magazine and stand up for the freedom of speech, he decided to launch a police raid on the offices of the Cumhuriyet newspaper after it announced it would reprint parts of Charlie Hebdo’s commemoration issue.

According to the prime minister the cover of the magazine, which featured a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed holding up a sign which read ‘All is forgiven’, had nothing to do with freedom of speech. Instead, Davutoglu called the cartoon an “insult” and a “provocation”, echoing the statements of President Erdogan who argued that the magazine’s cover was nothing but an incitement to “hatred and racism”.

For Akyol the events in Paris can only be interpreted as a “violent attack on humor by ignorant fundamentalism.” In his view, those who are not sharp enough to grasp the meaning of a cartoon are easily insulted and “people that cannot laugh at humor can only attack it.” For this reason, Akyol believes that an attack similar to the one in Paris could easily occur in Turkey too. “Just look at our president and how he deals with humor. With his feudal, sectarian and fundamentalist perspective he wants to oppress humor because he is unable to out-smart it.”

Sefer Selvi was one of the first people to be prosecuted by Erdogan back in 2004 – only two years after Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power – for drawing a cartoon that showed one of the then-prime minister’s advisor riding on his back, piggyback style. The cartoonist was ordered to pay around £5,000 in compensation before being acquitted by the country’s High Court. With Akyol he agrees that one of the key functions of political satire is to warn the people of the dangers ahead.

“We don’t just open our mouths after a major disaster has occurred – like the one in the Soma mine for example. We attack the system itself; the bosses and the government, and point out the potential risks we have to deal with. I wish that every now and then the ones in power would listen to us, read our newspapers and magazines and learn something from our drawings; maybe it could turn them into better managers and then we would have to draw less.”

Dictatorial freedom, democratic oppression

When the AKP came to power in 2002, it did so on a promise to democratize the country, in particular setting itself off against the period of military rule in the early 1980s and the covert military control over the democratically elected governments that succeeded it. Remarkably, when looking back on this pre-AKP era, both cartoonists argue that in some way they felt less oppressed under the military regime than under the current, supposedly democratic government.

“Back in those days the pressure was obvious, and very much out there,” Selvi recalls. “But for cartoonists, we felt it less when you compare it with today.” For him the AKP’s democratization discourse has turned out to be a complete lie. “The more they started to hide themselves behind the narrative that ‘we’re going to democratize this country’, the more they started to exert a different kind of pressure.”

Ercan Akyol believes that the reformist character of the AKP was simply a disguise they put up for the European Union, to increase Turkey’s chances of being allowed to join. It is hard for him to suppress his indignation about the fact that only recently the limits of press freedom in Turkey have been picked up by the international media.

“The tragedy of Turkey is not a contemporary affair, for many years civil rights and freedoms have been under pressure. The issue that we’re dealing with right now is not the repression of rights and freedoms – that has always been the case – but the fact that now it is suffocating us.”

However, not everyone agrees with the statement that there was more freedom or less censorship during the era of military rule. Valentina Marcella, a PhD candidate who is researching political satire in Turkey in the 1980s, argues that the censorship “was more clear and more official, and there was no claim [by the regime] of being democratic.”

Cartoonists knew the topics they couldn’t touch because their offices were housed in the same building as many newspapers where the lists of forbidden topics were hanging prominently on the walls. Even though these lists weren’t meant for them, the cartoonists were aware of what was allowed and what not. “Self-censorship was a way to survive on the market, if you would take a harsh stance chances were that your career would be finished in one day and that you would end up in jail.”

Both Akyol and Selvi point towards the conservative Islamic background of the country’s rulers as an explanation for the increasing arbitrariness of the current censorship policies. They believe that Erdogan is presenting himself as if he were a religious leader who holds a monopoly on the truth. “Erdogan’s word is the law and the truth at the same time,” states Selvi. “If he doesn’t say anything, the people don’t believe that it is true.”

In this context, any text or drawing that mocks Erdogan is an affront to this authority; picturing him as anything but the supreme leader is almost sacrilegious.

Big money controls the media

Besides scaring journalists, writers and cartoonists into self-censorship with threats of prosecution, job-loss and imprisonment the government pursues another tactic to curtail the freedom of speech in Turkey. Stefan Martens, Chief Copy Editor for Hürriyet Daily News (HDN) views the capital behind the pro-government media as one of the major problems threatening the country’s press freedom. Most of the country’s major news outlets are owned by one of the big holdings that due to their financial interests in other sectors of the economy are wary of antagonizing the government by publishing anything that might offense them.

“There are many brave journalists who more or less freely publish their stories,” says Martens. “But they basically preach to the choir; they write for small, left-wing publications, providing news of government excess and brutality that merely confirm what their readers already know and believe. But most Turks get their news from TV, and other than the few that have access to stations like Hayat or IMC, most are just watching pro-government channels that suppress any true depiction of events.”

The financial interests of the newspaper’s owners make that many editors uphold a very strict publishing policy designed not to rouse any sleeping dogs. This is was Akyol referred to when claiming that the current censorship is “suffocating”. Back in the days of the military regime he would be held personally accountable if he crossed a line, “but today editors can get into neck-deep shit because of my actions.”

“Nowadays I witness many cases where the editor takes an order from someone to fire a writer. At the same time I’ve witnessed many instances where they have taken orders to hire a specific writer, suggested by someone higher up the ladder.” Because of the close links between the corporations that control the media and the Turkish government “the latter has the power to reshape these newspapers the way it wants.”

In 2009, Turkey’s biggest media company Dogan Yayil, which controls more than half of the country’s non-state media market and part of Dogan Holding’s extensive network, was fined a record $2.53 billion for unpaid taxes. Although the government denied that the fine was politically motivated, many critical observers believed that it was a direct result of some of its television stations’ critical coverage of the government.

According to Martens, the tax fine continues to cast a shadow over what Hürriyet, the bigger, Turkish version of HDN and owned by Dogan Yayil, says. “The government does not exert direct control over the decisions made by Hürriyet’s editorial board,” he continues. “But due to a palpable sense of fear of angering the regime, the board exercises a considerable degree of self-censorship.”

A method of last resort

It is thus at different stages of the production process that the Turkish government tries to implement its censorship; either by scaring writers and cartoonists into submission, or – if they proof brave enough to resist the pressure – by forcing their editors to maintain tight control over what goes into print if they care in any way about the economic viability of their company.

When these methods fail, there is one age-old method of last resort; mob justice. Selvi recalls the tragic events in Sivas in 1993 where 35 people, mostly Alevi intellectuals, died after the hotel where they attended a conference was attacked and set on fire by an angry mob of local Sunni fundamentalists. The attack carried on for eight hours without a single intervention by police, military or fire brigades and Selvi believed that the mob had been angered after rumours had been spread that the Alevis had attempted to burn a local mosque.

“There is no way I can ever trust any form of state force,” says the cartoonist. “The power is something that I always attack. Today they’re messing with us a lot. They prosecute us, fine us, even jail us. But that has attracted so much attention from the international media that it’s now easier to create a climate of hate in which the government doesn’t have to act and can just encourage a lynch mob into action. It’s an old tactic, that’s what they did in Sivas, and you can see the same today.”

Those standing up for freedom of speech in Turkey today are under attack from all sides: from the government, from their employers, and in some cases even from the very people they’re trying to reach out to. The repression hasn’t reached the horrific levels of terror we’re witnessing in the regions under control of the Islamic State, of course, but one does well to remember that fascism is not a state of being, but rather a continuous process of ever-increasing radicalization.

Step by step, all voices of dissent are quelled until one single, homogeneous mass is left controlled by a single ruler whose wish is law, whose words are truth and who is the victim and the perpetrator, the judge and the prosecutor, the power and the people all at once. The only thing that stands between Erdogan and his aspiration to become the single most important political force in Turkey is the power of the people.

However, there is a bright side to the ever-increasing oppression, because, in Akyol’s words: “The more oppressive they become, the more they serve the cause of a single cartoon, or one little joke.” In order to deflect humorous criticism you have to be witty and smart, and reply with humor, something the ones in power are rarely capable of. This is why it’s such a dangerous tool, and why the power is often so afraid of it that it sees no other way out than to respond with violence. “One single cartoon cannot facilitate a revolution, but if we combine our forces, humor has the power to bring about social change.”

This article was originally published at Contributoria.

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