Dec 17 2018

Erdoğan's media crackdown stretches into Cyprus

It’s not just journalists in Turkey who face the wrath of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan -- editor Şener Levent has faced jail time, assassination attempts and angry mobs for challenging Turkey’s strongman from breakaway northern Cyprus, Agence France-Presse reported.

Security cameras watch over the entrances to his newspaper’s offices as a result of gun attacks in 2011 targeting Levent, who has run the leftist daily Afrika for 20 years.

“There is always a price you pay for freedom of expression,” the 70-year-old Turkish Cypriot told AFP. “But I believe that a person should get rid of his fears.”

In January, hundreds of protesters attacked the paper’s offices after it ran an article criticising a Turkish military offensive against the then Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin in Syria.

“Afrin, a second occupation by Turkey” after Cyprus, ran the article’s headline, said AFP. Levent is a native of Cyprus, a Mediterranean island whose northern third has been under Turkish military control since 1974.

Turkish troops invaded that year in response to a coup backed by the military junta then in power in Athens that sought to unite the island with Greece, a union opposed by Turkish Cypriots. Only Ankara recognises the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC). It also bankrolls the entity, according to AFP.

Ankara regards the use of the term “occupation” for its deployment of some 35,000 troops in the KKTC, as well as criticism of its operations against the Kurds in Syria, as defamation, AFP said.

After Afrika published the article on Afrin, Erdoğan called on Turkey’s “brothers in north Cyprus to give the necessary response”.

The following day, a crowd attacked the offices of Afrika, a tiny daily with a 1,500 circulation in a statelet of around 300,000 people, as Turkish Cypriot police stood back and watched, according to AFP.

“The hunt for critical media conducted by Erdoğan’s government” is so widespread, according to watchdog Reporters without Borders (RSF), that “we can fear a collateral effect in Cyprus”.

Turkey ranks 157th out of 180 countries on RSF’s 2018 press freedom index. Ankara holds more than 160 journalists in detention, according to P24, a platform that promotes editorial independence in Turkey.

The head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk, Pauline Ades-Mevel, told AFP “a freelance journalist critical of Turkey like Şener Levent can fear the worst”.

Levent currently faces three separate trials in northern Cyprus for “defaming a foreign leader”, “insulting religion” and “publishing fake news with the intent to create fear and panic among the population”, his lawyer Tacan Reynar told AFP.

He faces up to five years in prison for the article on Afrin and for republishing a cartoon from social media of a Greek statue urinating on Erdoğan’s head.

To avoid arrest, Levent no longer travels to Turkey, which he says “is no longer a democracy”. The KKTC leadership has said Turkish Cypriots cannot be extradited to Turkey, and Levent also sees EU citizenship as his protection.

“They know in Turkey that they can’t really do what they are doing to their citizens to a European citizen,” said Levent, a seasoned campaigner for reunification with the island’s Greek Cypriot south, an EU member state since 2004.