Turkish Comedian Faces 2 Years in Prison for Satirical Tweet

Turkish comedian, actor, and cartoonist Cem Yilmaz went to trial on Monday for a recent tweet “insulting” Governor Selim Cebiroglu. Facing up to two years in jail for expressing his upset over the governor’s verbal abuse of math teacher Halil Serkan Oz, the trial against Cem Yilmaz further demonstrates the precarious position of free speech in Turkey.

The award-winning actor has not only appeared in over a dozen films, but his stand-up comedy routines and cartoon work in the Turkish humor magazine Leman has made Yilmaz a popular figure in Turkish pop culture. When math teacher Halil Serkan Oz died of a heart attack during a protest against Governor Cebiroglu that resulted from Cebiroglu’s harsh statements this past March about the Oz’s “beggarly” appearances (statements allegedly made in front of students when Cebiroglu visited Oz’s classroom), Yilmaz simply tweeted, “Crushing a man by using the power of an official position and fatally breaking his heart… What a shame that the poor teacher died. May you rise to even more important positions, Mr. Governor!”

Although the tweet was meant to criticize, as Yilmaz’s lawyer Rengin Gonenc Yuskel points out, it in no way implicated the governor in Oz’s death. As such, Yuskel argues that the trial is simply Cebiroglu’s attempt to silence the comedian. “[Yilmaz] had not committed any crime… At no point in his tweet does he say ‘you did it’. What he did was criticize.”

The state of freedom of expression in Turkey has been deteriorating over the past few years, with many cartoonists and free speech activists speaking out about the dangers of censorship in their home country. From cartoonist Musa Kart’s own battles with the Turkish government for criticizing president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to other cartoonists like Bahadır Baruter and Ozer Aydogan, who narrowly avoided a prison sentence for their work in the Turkish satire magazine Penguen, Turkey’s impediment of free press has become a hot topic in international politics. “It’s no secret that there are some trends within Turkey that I have been troubled with,” President Obama said in a conversation last week. “I think the approach they have been taking toward the press is one that could lead Turkey down a path that would be very troubling.”

Moreover, the actions being taken by those in positions of power in Turkey have bred a climate of fear and self-censorship. As Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk commented in an interview with the Turkish newspaper The Daily Hurriyet, “The worst thing is that there’s a fear. I find that everyone is afraid; it’s not normal … Freedom of expression has fallen to a very low level.”

This hasn’t kept everyone quite, though. As Yilmaz’s lawyer points out, Yilmaz was commenting “in his capacity as a humorist, an artist,” and “leaders must be more tolerant towards criticism.”

CBLDF will keep you posted as this story develops.

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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!