Jun 26th 2018
PITY the lowly cartoonists attempting to earn a living by caricaturing cantankerous world leaders. The resulting imbalances in power can seem comical—like gadflies conspiring to topple an elephant. But enduring such cartooning insolence is a hallmark of tolerant societies. Not long ago, Turkey aspired to be one of them. Turkish newspapers celebrated cartoons. Satirical magazines such as Penguen and Leman flourished. Visual satirists regularly trained their unflattering pens on the country’s leading politicians. One of the world’s best-known competitions, the Aydin Dogan International Cartoon Contest, was headquartered at the seaside resort of Bodrum.
That changed in 2003 when Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Turkey’s prime minister and the tide of tolerance turned. Mr Erdogan, who is now president (and was re-elected on June 24th with 53% of the vote), has had a long entanglement with Musa Kart, one of the country’s top cartoonists. The increasingly authoritarian treatment of Mr Kart shows how far the country’s commitment to free expression has waned in the past 15 years. By the time Mr Erdogan rose to the top of politics, Mr Kart was already a seasoned cartoonist, with 20 years of experience and a “Journalist of the Year” award under his belt. His perch was on the front page of the chief opposition newspaper, Cumhuriyet, where he penned a daily cartoon.
Before 2003 Mr Kart had cheekily rendered Mr Erdogan, previously the mayor of Istanbul, many times. As the prime minister had been jailed himself for four months after reciting a subversive poem, the hope was that Turkey would become more tolerant of dissent. But Mr Erdogan quickly forgot his own tribulations and became increasingly hostile to his critics. In 2004 a benign depiction of Mr Erdogan as a cat entangled in a ball of wool seemed to set the prime minister off (see below). Mr Erdogan sued.
The lawsuit quickly became a cause célèbre in Turkey and abroad. Free-speech advocates held rallies. Penguen, the Turkish satirical magazine, got in on the fun by decorating its cover with a menagerie of different zoo animals, each one sporting Mr Erdogan’s caricatured visage.
After a year of negative publicity, the country’s top court of appeal threw out the case against Mr Kart. It was a huge embarrassment to Mr Erdogan, made worse by the celebrity of his artistic antagonist. Mr Kart was feted across the world for his resistance to power. He was presented with awards for journalistic courage in both Turkey and America.
This legal drama turned out to only be the opening skirmish. In the decade that followed, Mr Erdogan’s skin grew thinner. Turkey’s aspirations to join the European Union dimmed as the country’s record on press freedom became ever worse. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey is now the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. More than 180 press outlets deemed too prickly to the government have been closed.
Through it all, Mr Kart continued drawing. Eventually Mr Erdogan targeted the cartoonist again. It came after people close to Mr Erdogan, including four of his ministers, were implicated in a corruption scandal. Mr Kart drew a cartoon of the prime minister as a hologram turning away from bank robbers (see picture below). Soon after, Mr Kart was arrested on charges of slander, which carried a prison sentence of nine years.
The international cartoon community—a small but opinionated bunch—did their part to raise awareness of Mr Kart’s plight. They began a viral online campaign, publishing uncomplimentary caricatures of Mr Erdogan. Once again, Turkey’s increasingly fragile legal system, though under strain by Mr Erdogan, managed to save Mr Kart. He was acquitted of the charges for a second time.
But things were only to get worse. In July 2016, after a coup attempt failed, a state of emergency was declared in Turkey. Mr Erdogan began to purge the country’s institutions—teachers, police and the press—of his political enemies, real or perceived. Media critics of the regime became high-profile targets and soon Mr Kart found himself arrested yet again. This time he was detained along with ten of his colleagues from Cumhuriyet for allegedly aiding a terrorist organisation (the Gulenist movement led by exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who was once Mr Erdogan’s ally, and who was accused of masterminding the coup). “My newspaper has always defended universal values like democracy, secularity, human rights, legal sovereignty, peace and women’s rights,” says Mr Kart. “That was the reason it has always been a target for anti-democratic powers and its writers have been murdered throughout its history.”
The collective prosecution of Mr Kart and his colleagues was the largest trial of journalists since the coup. The prosecution presented no compelling evidence in the trial to support its case. Mr Kart pointed to copious examples of his cartoons criticising and ridiculing Mr Gulen and his movement, suggesting that his terroristic ties to the organisation were as farcical as his drawings. “I’ve been drawing cartoons for over 40 years. I have witnessed different political eras and leaders in these years. In terms of law and justice this is the worst period of all,” he told the court.
After nine months in detention and a two-day trial, Mr Kart was sentenced to nearly four years in jail for drawing cartoons. His 14-year-long ordeal of repeated persecution by Mr Erdogan has become a sad metaphor for the unravelling of democratic norms in Turkey.
Mr Kart continues to draw while awaiting news of his appeal. He even continues to draw Mr Erdogan (see below). Why? “I believe in Turkey. I believe that for the Turks there is no night that lasts forever,” he says. “Daylight will return.”
“You have created a country the world envies. How did it happen? Could you tell us?” June 20th, 2018.