Turks cannot make fun of their rulers - for obvious reasons...

One way to gauge freedom of expression in a country is to look at political satire. Turkey, where freedom of media and expression have deteriorated as a result of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's increasing authoritarian proclivities, has almost no channel for political satire. Zaytung (the Turkish version of The Onion without the news videos) and Uykusuz, a weekly political satire magazine are still active channels for political satire, though court cases have been filed against the latter.

By its nature, humour or satire should be, and in most cases is, critical. Political satire is usually anti; it is against everything, but first and foremost, it is against whoever is in power. It is no surprise that in the United States, comedians like Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Trevor Noah mostly ridicule President Donald Trump, not Hilary Clinton. Rulers - on whose shoulders lies the burden of responsibility - are direct objects of criticism, and in this respect, power is more likely to be criticised than the opposition.

Political satire can only be made in an environment where there is free speech. It is impossible to exaggerate the problems Turkey has in relation to freedom of expression, media, and the internet. According to the 2018 ranking of Reporters Without Borders, Turkey ranks 157th in freedom of press index out of 180 countries. According to the November 2016 report of Freedom House, Turkey was rated “not free” in Internet freedom. It is not uncommon for people to be investigated and even arrested for their social media posts. When a physician shared a meme comparing Erdoğan to the Lord of The Rings character Gollum in 2016, he was taken to court, and was acquitted only after the court reached the verdict (based on an “expert witness”) that Gollum was a good character! And finally, without a VPN, you cannot read this article in Turkey, because Ahval, too, along with thousands of websites including Wikipedia, is blocked.    

Political satire is not something tolerated by Erdoğan and his government. At least three times between 2005 and 2018, Erdoğan has filed cases against cartoonists for insulting him. Whereas the 2005 case was dismissed by the court for being within the boundaries of “freedom of artistic expression”, the most recent ones, after Erdoğan has consolidated his power and more or less taken control of the judiciary, have ended with a guilty verdict. In May 2018, a group of students from one of Turkey's top universities Middle East Technical University were arrested for carrying a placard that had Erdoğan depicted as animal. Deputies from the main opposition party Republican People's Party (CHP) then shared the same cartoon to protest the arrest and were also indicted.

The number of cases brought against people for insulting Erdoğan also gives a clue as to why there is very limited political satire in Turkey. According to Ministry of Justice, as of June 2017, 3,658 people had been brought to court for insulting Erdoğan, and a total of 46,193 people for insulting Turkey, Turkish institutions, or Turkish government institutions.

In the last few years, all kinds of political demonstrations in Turkey against Erdoğan have been suppressed by the riot police - the most notorious being the 2013 Gezi Protests. With opposition or protest against Erdoğan becoming increasingly difficult inside Turkey, people turn to showing dissent outside the country, which creates humorous and sometimes tragic scenes. When in 2017, a group of people protested against Erdoğan in Washington DC, his bodyguards (after their attempt to attack protestors was prevented by U.S. security forces) tried to suppress the protestors' “terrorist Erdoğan” chants by making loud and incomprehensible noises. In October 2015, a Finnish journalist asked Erdoğan in a press conference whether he was a dictator. Erdoğan first asked the name of the publication and then went to say that if he were a dictator, the journalist would not be able to ask the question.[1]

There are also cases where these humorous situations turn violent. In February 2016 in Ecuador and in May 2017 in the United States, Erdoğan's bodyguards violently attacked protestors and inflicted serious physical harm, creating mini-crises with these countries.  

Since the 2013 Gezi Protests, the Erdoğan administration and its supporting media have blamed different groups of internal and external enemies for all kinds of political, economic and social problems that Turkey has faced. In an environment like this, criticism inside the country is labelled “treason”, and criticism from outside is portrayed as “attempts of external powers to weaken Turkey”, or simply as “animosity against Erdoğan and Turkey”. When in April 2016, German political satirist Jan Böhmermann read a poem on German TV insulting Erdoğan, Erdoğan took action and brought charges against the cartoonist based on a 19th century German law that criminalises insulting foreign leaders. Böhmermann was later acquitted as the court stated it was satire, but he was banned from reading certain parts of the poem.          

Since the 2013 Gezi protests, Erdoğan’s government and its media have come up with numerous conspiracy theories. A country where a chief advisor to the prime minister claims that Erdoğan is targeted by telekinesis from external powers and where the president himself compares the Dutch to the Nazis, or claims that Muslims discovered the American continent long before Columbus, deserves to be ridiculed. But for the reasons I have elucidated in this article, the channels to ridicule Erdoğan are either not present, or the people who would like to do so have to take obvious risks.


[1] It might seem irrelevant, but something very similar (with almost identical wording) happened in 1932 as well, during Atatürk's single-party period. When a journalist asked Atatürk whether he was a dictator, Atatürk is known to have replied as “If I were a dictator, you could not ask this question.” Also in 1960, three weeks before the 27 May 1960 coup d'état, something very similar happened. When during an organized protest, a citizen got hold of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and cried “I want freedom,” Menderes replied by saying that without freedom, he could not get hold of the Prime Minister.
This continuity of authoritarianism and the flawed idea of Turkish rulers that if you can complain about lack of X, than that X actually exists, deserves attention.


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