Satire in Turkey: the enclave of the indomitable

Every three-months, Turkish cartoonist Sefer Selvi receives a letter from the Istanbul prosecutor’s office informing him he is being investigated over one or other of his drawings on suspicion of insulting the president or other state Institutions, or for incitement He is currently facing a court case on charges of insulting the former prime minister, Binali Yıldırım.

Sefer Selvi, Evrensel

The cartoon points to accusations of corruption levelled at top members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). “The interesting point in this case is that no one accuses me of slander. They are trying to prove that I am insulting Yıldırım,” said Selvi, grinning.

In the editorial office of “LeMan”, one of Turkey’s leading satirical magazines and other cartoonists sip tea while working on next week’s edition. Many of them learned their trade working for Gırgır, a bestselling satirical magazine from 1972 until 1989 at a time when Turkish media suffered in the wake of two coups d’état in 1971 and 1980.

Gırgır, 1980

Gırgır editor Oğuz Aral trained talent from across the country at the so-called “Gırgır Ecole”, using local characters and a language the average person could understand while entertaining the intellectual audience with its wit and high-quality graphics. LeMan editor in chief Tuncay Akgün developed the character “Bezgin Bekir” (grumpy Bekir) at Gırgır. He is the prototype of an ageing hippy, disillusioned by politics but still deeply devoted to basic humanist principles.

Tuncay Akgün, LeMan 2017

Akgün has also survived several court cases, but sometimes feels an affinity with his character. After the failed coup of July 2016, the magazine published a special edition with a cover showing two hands of an invisible person wheeling an angry crowd against scared conscripts. After he shared the drawing on Twitter, “there were unbelievable insults and threats,” Akgün said. “They published our address and wanted us to end like our colleagues at Charlie Hebdo. The magazine was confiscated at the printing house before we could distribute it.”  

A group of angry government supporters gathered in front of LeMan’s offices. Selvi and Akgün said pressure on them had never been so strong.

“More than governmental pressure, the bashing of cartoonists on social media is much worse for us. Naturally we all started censoring ourselves,” Selvi said. Cartoonists walk a tightrope between prosecution and getting across their encrypted critique.

But at a time of increased government control and influence over the media, satirical magazines still find a way to poke fun at those in power. On the eve of the Eid al-Adha religious holidays this month when Muslims sacrifice sheep, LeMan’s cover showed a group of sheep rejoicing that the dramatic fall in the lira would mean fewer people would be able to afford to buy and slaughter them.

Selvi is under investigation for one cartoon for a second time. A 2003 drawing shows pro-government businessman Cüneyt Zapsu sitting on Erdoğan’s back under the words “the hidden ruler”. Fined for insulting the then prime minister, two month ago Selvi received a letter from the prosecutor’s office informing him someone had lodged a complaint that the cartoon insulted the now president.  

Displaying Erdoğan with a moustache akin to Hitler's does not appear to cause offence however. As debate began on the move towards an executive presidential system of government at the beginning of 2015 – a change that came about after elections in June this year - Selvi pointed to the dangers of one-man rule.

     Sefer Selvi, LeMan 2015

But animal representations of the leader are taboo. The artist Musa Kart was fined in 2005 for depicting Erdoğan as a cat, but the appeals court later overturned the conviction.

Musa Kart, Cumhuriyet 2004

Erdogan sees animal representations as a degradation of his human dignity. Cartoonists at the magazine Penguen showed their solidarity with Kart in 2006 with a picture entitled "Tayyipler Alemi", which can be translated as both "Tayyips’ Zoo" and "Tayyips’ universe", making fun of Erdogan’s religiosity.

Penguen, 2006: Der Tayyip-Zoo, das Universum des Tayyip

Nowadays cartoonists have to be more careful. Kart is still on trial on charges of supporting several terrorist groups. As the main cartoonist of the oppositional Cumhuriyet newspaper, Kart is not being prosecuted for his drawings, his lawyer, Tora Pekin said. “This is a dissenting newspaper, that is the main crime. It is not because of certain works … To be an opponent seems to be enough to be taken to court in the Turkey of 2018,” he said.

But despite legal threats, satirists are still able to vividly expose political folly.

Galip Tekin: Mosque on the Moon, Uykusuz, 2017

In this comic strip by Galip Tekin, the president is represented as a misjudged genius storyteller. It shows a mosque destroyed by the United States during its moon landing - evidence that Muslims were first on the moon. In 2014, Erdoğan stunned the world by saying that Christopher Columbus had reported seeing a mosque on the Latin American coast, proving that Muslims had discovered America. Tekin himself appears at the end of the story and portrays Erdoğan as the most famous graphic novelist in Turkey. Tekin passed away shortly after this cartoon appeared, but still inspires a new generation of Turkish cartoonists.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.