In Turkey, cartoonists are calling out the government despite harsh censorship laws

Drawing by Cem Dinlenmiş, published in the issue 633 of Penguen in November 2014.
Drawing by Cem Dinlenmiş, published in the issue 633 of Penguen in November 2014.

Despite strict censorship in Turkey, young Turkish political cartoonists are taking a brave stand by creating work about the government’s veer toward authoritarianism in recent years. Using humour and poetry, they try to resist censorship and threats from the government, and create a space for free speech online.

It’s pretty clear that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t like cartoonists. In 2005, a cartoonist at the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet named Musa Kart was taken to court and ultimately fined 5,000 Turkish pounds (equivalent to roughly €2,300) after he portrayed Erdogan as a cat. In 2016, Kart and his colleagues at Cumhuriyet were accused of assisting terrorist groups. Kart was detained for nine months before being released on July 29.

Erdogan, who was the prime minister at the time, sued Kart over this cartoon (left). In solidarity, Kart’s colleagues at the Penguen review published an issue portraying Erdogan as different animals [on the right]. Erdogan then filed a complaint against each of them… but forgot to include the little penguin at the top.

Against a backdrop of growing curtailment of freedom of expression within Turkey, this small but dedicated group of cartoonists continue to call out the government for its abuses and celebrate the few movements of resistance. The FRANCE 24 Observers spoke with three young cartoonists, each with his or her own distinctive style, about the anxieties and hopes that come part and parcel with this profession under threat.

"My colleagues think twice before drawing the president"

Cem Dinlenmiş is a 31-year-old cartoonist living in Istanbul. For a long time, he published his work in the satirical paper "Penguen", until it closed down in May 2017. Nowadays he works for a similar publication, "Uykusuz" (which means "insomniac").

Most of the time, when you are drawing cartoons, it’s impossible to guess what is going to offend the government.

Even in the best of times, it’s hard to find a decent joke for the cover of a satirical magazine. But these days, it’s even harder, especially when you want to address a sensitive issue. Especially as the cover is the most visible part of the magazine and definitely draws attention.

In the last two years, some of my colleagues have started to think twice before drawing the president. Recently, the government has started to crack down on several organisations that were created to stand in solidarity with the journalists who have been wrongly imprisoned. I have started to feel nervous when I attend these meetings.

"Rainbow stairs". Published in Penguen Magazine #633 in November 2014.

During the Gezi protests in 2013, staircases all around Istanbul were painted in rainbow colours. In this cartoon, there are rainbow stairs in Erdoğan’s recently built (and highly controversial) presidential palace.

We have a weekly series called 'Her Şey Olur' (Anything Goes). It provides a satirical, pictorial record of what is going on in Turkey and the rest of the world. Our biggest challenge is finding fresh imagery and text to address longstanding issues, especially those that are heartbreaking. We have to be careful not to wear out our readers.

"Curfew". Published in Penguen Magazine #676 in September 2015.

In September 2015, there were a series of police operations and violent clashes. After that, the government imposed a curfew on many cities in the southeast of Turkey, a predominantly Kurdish area. In this illustration, a man finds himself exposed after his home is suddenly destroyed. A police officer gives him a stern warning: “Hey, there's a curfew. No one is allowed on the streets!”

To add another layer of commentary, the walls of the destroyed homes are inscribed with the names of civilians killed by Turkish security forces or fighters from the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party, a guerilla group that has been leading an armed struggle against the Turkish state since the 1980s.)

"Self-censorship is the main issue that we have to deal with"

Aslı Alpar, 30, is a cartoonist based in Ankara, where she is finishing her studies. She makes cartoons for Kaos GL, an NGO dedicated to protecting and promoting the rights of the LGBTI community, and a magazine called Kafa. Alpar says she finds inspiration in the feminist movement. For her, creating art that is a commentary on the social and political situation doesn’t feel like a choice, it feels like a necessity.

Most jokes in Turkey revolve around internal politics in the AKP [Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party]. I try to focus on other stuff, but it's not always easy.

In this cartoon, I’m asking myself the question “How would my life be different if the AKP was not the party in power? What would I be like?”

Translation: “I would definitely be more beautiful. I would have less sadness wrinkles and my face would be more smiling. I would have a happier heart”, says cartoonist Asli Alpar in this piece.

I respond to the question with humour. One thing is certain: I wouldn't be a cartoonist because I only entered this field because I felt the need to comment on the AKP's reactionary politics. Maybe I would be an accountant instead. If the AKP wasn’t in power, maybe I’d lead a healthier lifestyle as I wouldn’t be so sad and stressed.

In this cartoon, two lesbian women are talking about the tension in Turkey ahead of the referendum in April 2017. The referendum ended up granting more powers to the president. "This fuck buddy you're with at the moment, are they a good cure for the Monday blues?” one woman asks. "No, but it is good for the referendum stress,” the other woman answers. Most of the jokes about male-female sexuality in Turkey are pretty sexist. As for the sexuality of LGBTI people – well, people either pretend like it doesn’t exist or they think it is a sin. It’s a hard topic to write jokes about, but I’m doing my best.

I love Turkey. I was born here and it’s the only place I know. But no one is safe here any more. It doesn’t matter if you are a human or an animal or a tree – you aren’t safe in Turkey. Forests are being devastated. If you a human, someone could send you to jail over a disputed three cents.

Our satirical magazines are closing, one by one. The hardest issue we have to face is self-censorship. People are scared. Working in the world of comedy and satire is getting harder every day. However, I still maintain hope that all of this will pass. There must be a way. But, for now, the only way to feel safe in Turkey is to dream.

"You can find unexpected bursts of humour, bravery and solidarity"

Zeynep Özatalay, 38, is an independent cartoonist who lives in Istanbul.

Politics is part of daily life in Turkey, so it seems almost inevitable to make drawings about politics. My style is quite subtle. I don’t want my work to be insulting or agitative. I try to make my point using satire.

This cartoon is about the academics who lost their jobs after having signed a petition calling for peace. Many of the country’s educators, who are a precious resource, were dismissed because of the government’s strict policy.

"This cartoon represents Cerattepe, a region in northern Turkey that is known for its beautiful green valleys but that is currently being destroyed by mining companies. Local people having been resisting the mine companies for a long time, so I drew this for them."

I actually don’t think that I, as a cartoonist, take as many risks as the reporters and journalists. My work consists of translating the news into a visual form. I try to explain information that has already been revealed. I think there will always be a place for criticism and satire in Turkey.

"The final cartoon is about freedom of the press. I drew it after several journalists were arrested and their supporters held large protests."

If I had to describe the current situation in Turkey right now, I would say that it is chaotic and there is a lot of tension. At the same time, however, you can find unexpected bursts of humour, bravery and solidarity.