When I first came to live in Istanbul nearly twenty years ago there were only two television channels and a couple of radio stations, all state-run. Films were censored, and the Turkish music scene was conventional to say the least, with few pop stars under the age of thirty. People were drably dressed, and there wasn’t much to do at night but go to a smoky dingy bar or coffee house, where the clientele was strictly male.
The changes I’ve witnessed during my time here have been amazing. Now, apart from worldwide programmes beamed in from satellite, there are masses of Turkish channels ranging from excellent to tat; loads of radio stations to choose from, many featuring Turkish rock, rap and hip-hop belted out by energetic young singers who suddenly seemed to appear from nowhere in the nineties; the bustling streets are filled with trendily dressed folk on their way to smart bars, cafes and discos where males and females mix freely.
A remarkably liberal relaxation in philosophy and attitude. But even twenty years ago there were always the hugely popular weekly Turkish comics ‘Limon’, ‘Girgir’, ‘Penguen’ outrageous and anarchic, often black and sick, but always very funny, pitilessly lampooning Turkish behaviour, no holds barred on sex, politics or religion. Armed with a dictionary they were my most enjoyable way of learning the Turkish language and culture. No President or politician escaped satirical scrutiny, the spotlight of derision focused on their foibles and corruption. These comics were a breath of fresh air, a genuine example of freedom of expression.
So I was dismayed to learn last week that the Prime Minister of Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan, who has long championed himself as an advocate of free speech, having been jailed himself in 1999 for reciting a poem deemed ‘anti-state’, has declared war against the cartoonists.
After successfully suing the left wing newspaper ‘Evrensel’ last year for portraying him as a horse being led by one of his advisers, in February this year he sued political cartoonist Musa Kart for depicting him as a cat tangled in a ball of wool in the daily ‘Cumhuriyet’, claiming he found the cartoon "deeply humiliating". Kart was fined 3500 dollars on charges of ‘assailing Erdogan’s honor’.
A second suit against a smaller newspaper for reprinting the cartoon was thrown out of court.
"People who are under public light are forced to endure criticism in the same way that they endure applause", said Judge Mithat Ali Kabaali in his ruling. . ‘A prime minister who was forced to serve a long jail term for reciting a poem should show more tolerance to these kinds of criticisms.’
To show solidarity with fellow cartoonist Kart, the weekly satirical magazine ‘Penguen’ devoted its February 24 front cover to drawings of Erdogan with the body of a camel, a frog, a monkey, a snake, a duck and an elephant, under the title "The World of Tayyip".
The incensed Prime Minister retaliated by filing a new lawsuit against the publishing house, claiming the pictures "attacked his individual rights" and demanding 30000 dollars in compensation for offending him.
"We were not surprised by the news," said the editor, Selcuk Erdem. "We printed the drawings as a message to say that cartoonists cannot be silenced."
"This was a test of the sincerity of the prime minister who says he wants Turkey to be a member of the European Union," Erdem said. "He has shown his true face."
Turkey’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."
Although Turkey has been my home for the last twenty years I have usually avoided any comment of the political scene here in my own collage work, more inspired by the shenanigans of Bush and Blair and their cronies, but yesterday I decided to break that rule and show defiance to despotism and solidarity with the cartoonists of Turkey by adding to my site of collages this picture of Bush and Erdogan, whom he describes as a ‘personal friend’.
MICHAEL DICKINSON is a writer and artist who works as an English teacher in Istanbul, Turkey. He designed the cover art for two CounterPunch books, Serpents in the Garden and Dime’s Worth of Difference, as well as Grand Theft Pentagon, forthcoming from Common Courage Press. He can be contacted through his website of collage pictures at http://CARNIVAL_OF_CHAOS.TRIPOD.COM