This nation’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 Union.
“We cartoonists have long faced pressure from politicians,” Metin Peker, the association’s president, said at a news conference.
“Just as we thought those dark days were over, we have been confronted with this.”
Peker was referring to a defamation suit filed recently by Erdogan against Musa Kart, a cartoonist for the secular daily newspaper Cumhuriyet. Kart was fined $3,500 by an Ankara court last week on charges of assailing Erdogan’s honor in a cartoon that depicted him as a cat enmeshed in a ball of wool.
The work was published by Cumhuriyet in May, when the Turkish leader proposed a legislation that would allow graduates of Islamic clerical training schools to enter secular universities. In the cartoon, Erdogan, who is entangled in yarn labeled for the Islamic religious schools, says: “Do not create tensions. We shall resolve this matter.”
Turkish secularists accused the former Islamist leader of doing just what the cartoon figure warned against by trying to increase the role of Islam in public life. The bill was rejected by the country’s secularist president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer.
Kart denies that he insulted Erdogan. “I was merely trying to show that he had become trapped in his own rhetoric,” he said Wednesday in a telephone interview, adding that he would appeal the verdict.
Erdogan filed a similar suit against cartoonist Sefer Selvi, of the left-leaning daily Evrensel, who drew the prime minister as a horse being led by one of his advisors. Selvi was also convicted and fined.
Western observers say such moves fly in the face of Erdogan’s efforts to lead Turkey into the EU. Since coming to power two years ago, he has pushed through a blizzard of reforms aimed at winning support in the European community. The moves have included scrapping prison sentences for journalists expressing dissident views and expanding free-speech protections.
The changes prompted EU leaders to agree in December to launch accession negotiations with Turkey starting Oct. 3. “The talks will start only if Turkey continues to stick by the EU’s rules,” a Western envoy who requested anonymity said Wednesday.
Until recent years, Turkish journalists were routinely tortured and jailed for airing opinions deemed to undermine the state.
Erdogan spent a brief stint in jail in 1998 after being convicted on charges of trying to incite a religious uprising when he recited a nationalist poem at a rally. Since taking office, however, he has filed more than 50 cases against journalists and cartoonists accused of defaming him, media lawyers say.
“One would think that as a victim of repression, Erdogan would be the least likely leader to go after our friends,” said Tuncay Akgun, the co-owner of Turkey’s largest-selling weekly cartoon magazine, Leman.
Some speculate that Erdogan’s antagonism toward cartoonists is deeply personal.
“Erdogan has a real problem with criticism, especially if it’s graphic,” said a longtime associate, who declined to be identified.
Said Akgun: “More likely he doesn’t have a sense of humor.”