Turkish Cartoonists Stand Behind Their Right to Free Speech Despite Threats

As the number of political cartoons criticizing the Turkish government has increased, so have the drastic measures to stifle these forms of free speech. In an attempt to regulate the global image of Turkey as well as its rich and powerful, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repeated attempts to censor journalists, authors, and cartoonists has left Turkish free speech in a precarious position.

From judicial actions taken against political cartoonist Musa Kart, who mocked President Erdogan’s role in a graft scandal earlier this year (they just recently concluded with Mr. Kart’s acquital), to President Erdogan’s attempts to block Twitter in order to prevent negative and detrimental commentary from being posted about his presidency, to a series of police arrests of journalists and media workers who protested the President’s campaign against those with anti-government sentiments, it is no wonder that so many Turkish citizens feel that they cannot freely express themselves.

Aslan Ozdemir, editor of the Turkish political cartoon magazine Leman, recently commented on the current political climate, saying:

As long as I’ve been aware, there has always been some form of pressure on writers and illustrators… Today, we feel the same pressure, but it has changed its face. It might not be the threat of imprisonment as we saw during the 1980 military coup, but it’s an air of oppression by the civilian government.

Turkey has a rich heritage using political cartoons to comment upon and express concerns regarding the state of their country, but this change from outright violence to a form of passive aggressive regulation brought about by legal action is what is making it more and more difficult for artists and writers to freely express themselves in Turkey. Alan Yaman, a researcher on Turkey for PEN International, notes, “The extension of judicial harassment to caricaturists is indicative of the increasing disregard for the right to freedom of expression in the country.”

Even though intimidation tactics are being used to force cartoonists and authors to back down, these creative individuals are doing anything but. Musa Kart comments, “This repetitive cycle of legal actions affects all cartoonists, writers, intellectuals in this country… We will continue to work and express what we think for the good of our future generations.”

In response to the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Turkish cartoonists have spoken out in support their fellow professionals, and many continue to be the targets of political and social violence. From the Joint June Movement’s organization of the “We Are Charlie” march to posting and sharing Charlie Hebdo images, the message that Turkish cartoonists are propagating is one of solidarity. As Musa Kart remarked regarding the attack to the Al-Monitor, “I condemn the attack. A 10-year prison sentence for those cartoonists would have been sufficient.”

Other Turkish caricaturists like Semih Poroy have also made the observation that the growing hostile political climate in other countries that led to the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices are indications of a larger global issue that threatens Turkey itself. He commented:

Cartoonists are without protection in Turkey. If freedom of speech is not guaranteed, some might even be inspired by the inhumane events of the Charlie Hebdo attack and try to repeat them.

With the outpouring of both support and condemnation for the Muslim population, it is understandable that cartoonists in other Muslim countries would express fear regarding their own safety. The tensions resulting from the attack have sparked several groups on both sides to rise to action. Most disconcerting among the responders are those who have made direct threats to the Turkish cartoonists. Ibrahim Yoruk, a columnist for the Vahdet Daily, recently tweeted to the Turkish satire magazine Penguen, saying: “Learn from their mistake: There can be no humor with Islamic faith.” Other comments, such as, “The number of heads to be taken out in [Turkish satire magazine Leman] is more than 12,” have also been reported as being posted online.

 There is no doubt that recent events have left Turkish cartoonists in a much more precarious position. Whether it be by blatant threats to their safety, violence perpetrated against them by police force, or lawsuits by the government, the current state of Turkey’s freedom of speech is troubling. As a testament to the strength of the Turkish cartoonist community, though, they continue to produce their works and speak up about the injustices being perpetrated against their communities. The Joint June Movement has adopted the slogan, “We are not afraid,” and as an unnamed political satirist commented, “I will first mourn the loss of my colleagues and caricaturize my sorrow.”

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!