Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Turkey’s Embattled Political Cartoonists

From The Wall Street Journal.

The April 2015 cover of the Turkish cartoon magazine Penguen, which closed this summer.
The headline reads, ‘We Continue to Draw,’ with an image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A Turkish tradition of satire and caricatures is disappearing in the age of Twitter and Erdogan.

Satirical cartooning may not be dead in Turkey, but it’s on life support. 

The country’s oldest satire magazine, Girgir, shut down in February amid a controversy over a cartoon depiction of Moses, who is a prophet in Islam as in Judaism and Christianity. 

A panel shows Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt,
with his companions complaining and using vulgar curse words.

The well-known cartoon magazine Penguen, whose jowly caricatures of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been a fixture at newsstands for years, closed this summer.

The grand Turkish tradition of political lampoons and caricatures is disappearing in the face of a changing media landscape and the country’s increasingly autocratic political life. 

“To write or draw something today is harder than in any other period,” said Tuncay Akgun, owner of the satirical weekly Leman, in a cartoon-plastered cafe beneath the magazine’s Istanbul offices.

Over the centuries, caricaturists have often had strained relationships with the Turkish state, but tensions have heightened as Mr. Erdogan has consolidated power and suppressed dissent. 

That process accelerated after a failed military coup a year ago: The government has closed more than 100 media outlets, and more than 100 journalists are in jail.

But cartoonists say that declining revenue, more than anything else, has made it difficult for them to carry on. 

Print circulation has plummeted as readers increasingly seek political humor online.

“We couldn’t develop a revenue model from the internet,” said Erdil Yasaroglu, co-founder of Penguen

The magazine struggled to find younger subscribers and started losing money three years ago, he says. 

Unauthorized Instagram accounts with millions of followers were cannibalizing its content the minute new issues were published, he says. 

With no viable online alternatives to the older magazines, some Turkish cartoonists fear that their tradition will die out.

Turkey’s weekly cartoon tabloids—which mix social and political commentary with plain old jokes—started in the early 1970s with the founding of Girgir

The cartoon that got the magazine in trouble earlier this year showed Moses bragging about his miracles while Israelites responded to him with vulgar curses. 

It prompted condemnation on social media and a swift apology from the magazine, which said on Twitter that the cartoon had slipped by sleep-deprived editors. 

When an Istanbul prosecutor started an investigation for the crime of insulting religious values, Girgir’s publisher shut down the storied magazine and fired its employees.

Though some past leaders have welcomed satire—former President Turgut Ozal kept caricatures of himself in his office, according to an aide—Mr. Erdogan does not. 

Turkish law criminalizes insulting the nation, government officials and state institutions, and prosecutors opened criminal cases against 3,658 people for insulting the president in 2016 alone, according to Turkey’s Ministry of Justice. 

The penalty for the crime ranges from a year to more than five years in prison.

Mr. Erdogan said last year that he would drop all criminal complaints he initiated against people for allegedly insulting the president, but because Turkish law allows private citizens to file complaints for the same crime, several of the cases are ongoing, according to lawyers.

In 2015, a Turkish court sentenced two cartoonists from Penguen to a year in prison for a front cover depicting Mr. Erdogan visiting the newly built presidential palace in Ankara. 

In the cartoon, Mr. Erdogan complains about the lack of pomp and ceremony. “We could have at least sacrificed a journalist,” he says.

Acting on a citizen’s complaint, prosecutors opened a case—but the issue wasn’t the caricature of Mr. Erdogan himself. 

It was the drawing of the man greeting him at the palace, who had his thumb and index finger joined to button his suit jacket. 

The complaint argued that this somehow suggested symbolically that the president was gay.

“First of all, that isn’t an insult. Second, it isn’t funny and isn’t the type of joke we’d make. And finally, that is simply how you button a jacket,” says Mr. Yasaroglu of Penguen

The sentence was later reduced and commuted to a fine, an outcome that Mr. Yasaroglu still finds “ridiculous.”

Penguen closed mainly because it was losing money, Mr. Yasaroglu says. 

Keeping up with the expectations of online readers was a challenge. 

The magazine would have cartoonists draw on Mondays, send their work to the printer on Tuesdays and distribute the issue on Wednesdays. 

But in the age of Twitter and Instagram, readers were losing interest in jokes that were already several days old.

The political climate has changed too, and social-media users posting content mocking the government and its officials are increasingly having brushes with the law. 

A court acquitted a Turkish doctor this year of denigrating Mr. Erdogan by sharing a triptych of photos that compared the president to Gollum, a scheming character from “The Lord of the Rings.” 

(The doctor’s legal team argued that Gollum wasn’t actually evil and that the comparison therefore wasn’t offensive.)

Leman faces the same problems that Penguen did, says its owner, Mr. Akgun. 

Print circulation has dropped to 15,000, down from a height of more than 100,000 in the late 1990s, but Mr. Akgun isn’t giving up. 

“Our biggest enemy is exhaustion,” Mr. Akgun says. “If we can overcome this, we will develop new models.”

Leman has continued criticizing the government during the continuing state of emergency imposed after the failed coup. 

The publication’s first cover after the coup attempt, showing soldiers and citizens as pawns in a game, led pro-government protesters to attack its offices. 

_I move the soldiers, Mehmet...
_I see you... and raise the stakes by 50%...

“I’m proud of standing on my feet with my friends as we keep drawing and documenting history,” says Mr. Akgun.

Musa Kart, a cartoonist for Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s oldest newspaper, thinks that he might be the country’s most investigated and criminally charged caricaturist. 

He has been through two trials for his depictions of Mr. Erdogan. 

Courts acquitted Mr. Kart in both cases, while Turkish satirists rose to his defense. 

(In solidarity, Penguen printed a menagerie of Erdogan-faced animals on its cover, prompting prosecutors to open a case against it as well; that case was eventually thrown out.)

Last November, Mr. Kart was again jailed, along with many of his colleagues from Cumhuriyet, as part of Turkey’s sprawling investigation into the failed coup plotters. 

He appeared before an Istanbul court late last month, charged with aiding a terror group—a reference to the movement of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric blamed by Turkey for the coup attempt (Mr. Gulen denies involvement) and frequently criticized by Mr. Kart and his colleagues in their newspaper. 

In his opening statement, Mr. Kart said that the indictment was “loaded with inspirational material for a humorist.” 

He was released on bail and went home for the first time in nine months. The trial resumes in September.

“I never forgot my sense of humor in jail,” Mr. Kart said in a text message after his release. “As long as life exists, humor and caricature will also exist.”

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