Celebrated Turkish cartoonist Musa Kart’s arrest is a symbol of Turkey’s media purge orchestrated by President Erdoğan. As his trial is put on hold, his fellow cartoonists call for an end to censorship,
It has long been the duty of cartoonists to analyse, mock, and satirise the world’s political events – especially those concerning the powerful. But in some parts of the world, the powerful fight back, as we see from the arrest of celebrated Turkish cartoonist Musa Kart.
In a large-scale targeting of Istanbul’s Cumhuriyet newspaper, the core of the paper’s editorial staff including journalists and Kart were arrested in November 2016. Collectively, the group faces 43 years in prison on suspicion of aiding a terrorist organisation (more precisely the Gulenist movement led by exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, who Turkey’s president blames for the 2016 coup; Gülen suggests the Turkish coup attempt could have been staged).
However, it has been said, the accused actually helped to expose what the Erdogan government sees as a terrorist movement.
Given this apparent absurdity, the case has been described as “Kafkaesque” by Benjamin Ward, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia section. Referring to the “nightmarishly complex, bizarre or illogical quality” writings of the late writer Franz Kafka [According to Merriam-Webster, Kafkaesque is applied to “bizarre and impersonal administrative situations where the individual feels powerless to understand or control what is happening”].
Though even Merriam-Webster itself has said the term is “so overused that it’s begun to lose its meaning”, the concept does seem to fit reality in Turkey, in particular regarding the Cumhuriyet dispute, the country’s largest trial of journalists since the coup attempt.
At the very least the trial is a symbol of Turkey’s media purge administered by the country’s autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in the aftermath of 2016’s attempted coup, which has seen around 274 journalists arrested.
Although the seizing of Musa Kart and his multiple colleagues was described as in breach of international law by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the week-long ‘Cumhuriyet 17’ trial went ahead on July 24 at the Çağlayan law court in downtown Istanbul, with prosecutors seeking a 29-year sentence for Kart.
On the trial’s fifth and final day, July 28, an interim verdict was announced, granting Kart release under judicial supervision until the next court date, September 11. However, five senior figures of Cumhuriyet remain in custody.
While the news of Kart’s bail is “better than expected”, according to Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI), reports of “freedom” are certainly mistaken. He is “not exonerated and not quite free,” said to JWF Terry Anderson, of the Board of Directors at CRNI, “But it means he can go home.”
Kart’s lawyer said the Cumhuriyet trials are worse than the McCarthy cases, the infamous trials of 1950 sparked by Senator John McCarthy’s charging of over 200 members of the state for involvement in communism. McCarthyism is now known as the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason with a disregard of concrete evidence. Apt, then, that Musa Kart’s lawyer made this comparison to Turkey’s indictment against the Cumhuriyet 17.
But this attack on Kart’s freedom of expression has not diminished the cartoonist’s bold challenge to those in authority. In fact, the opposite could be said. According to Reporters Without Borders, which had observers there for the trial, Kart’s comments in the courtroom were “full of humour”.
Thirty-five years of cartoons
“Instead of writing long and winding expositions, cartoonists pour out their feelings and thoughts directly, in a striking and energetic form,” Kart, who has been drawing cartoons for 35 years, said in his statement to the Istanbul High Criminal Court.
While defending his position as a cartoonist who has mocked terrorists organisations in his work, Kart explained: “The cartoon is an art form of an age in which a free mind and inquisitive freedom of thought began to express themselves.”
It was argued by the courts that Kart had been aiding Gülen’s movement with his cartoons. “Years ago, I drew some cartoons drawing attention to the fact that Fettullah Gülen was developing an organisation within the state,” Kart told the court. “How tragic it is, and also how comic that I am being tried today by the testimony of people who were at Gülen’s right hand.”
The cartoonist even showed some of his cartoons to the court as proof he has always been a critic – not a supporter – of Gülen.
The case is emblematic of something Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief, Gérard Biard, said about his magazine’s cartoons: they are often taken out of context and misunderstood. [In 2015, the French satirical magazine, known for its no-holds-barred cartoons that challenge authority, faced what Biard dubbed “the first time since World War II that journalists were physically threatened and physically exterminated.” The attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris saw two gunmen shoot and kill 12 people including eight employees and a guest at the magazine. The event provoked the phrase “Je Suis Charlie” to trend on social media].
Kart’s cartoons include a portrayal of Erdoğan as a confused, distracted cat playing with a ball of string, and another of the president with a hand holding a can of pepper spray coming out of his mouth. His drawings of Gülen include a cartoon of the Turkish preacher using a scrunched up piece of paper as a ball. Such playful, subversive, and critical depictions are emblematic of Kart’s work as a cartoonist.
Kart’s court statement was full of reasoning why freedom is a necessity for cartoonists, and how organisational structures based upon hierarchical relationships go against that. “It is against the very nature of things for cartoons and their creators to align themselves with a culture of submissiveness,” the statement read. “Courageous and independent view points that have broken free of cliché and standardised forms are what make for a true and effective cartoon.”
Anderson, an active, professional cartoonist himself, believes the function of cartoonists in society is to “act as a safety valve, expressing our frustrations with those in power or the inequity and injustice of life.”
“There is nothing to fear from the output of a political cartoonist unless a country is so unstable, or its leaders so insecure, that the very notion of expressing dissatisfaction can be considered radical or seditious.”
Settling old scores
Erdoğan’s aim at Kart is not a first. In 2005, Erdoğan, then the prime minister, sued him over the feline cartoon. At the time the court decided such a cartoon did not amount to libel, however, Kart was fined 5,000 Turkish lira. The fiasco also resulted in Kart being awarded the Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award for his commitment to freedom of expression.
Then, in 2014, Kart published a cartoon of two men stealing money from a vault. The drawing portrayed allies of Erdoğan suspected of turning a blind eye to a money laundering scandal in December 2013. This, of course, didn’t go down well with the President. Kart was arrested for slander and faced nine years in prison after Erdoğan “submitted a complaint”. He was later acquitted of the charges.
So why Kart’s arrest now? Anderson believes Erdoğan has “taken the opportunity to settle some old, seemingly unrelated scores”, given that he has tried and failed to silence Kart twice before.
On the charges of terrorism, Anderson had this to say:
“[Kart] is a humanist and citizen first and foremost, despises violence on the part of the police or military as such as terrorists or insurgents and reserves his criticism for enemies of justice and peace, wherever they are to be found.”
A united fight for freedom
Over the years, between trials, fellow cartoonists have pledged support for Kart in the form of cartoons. Drawings by cartoonists Dr Jack & Curtis, Zurum and Michael Kichka show the fight for Kart’s freedom, and freedom of expression for all, is widespread.
A particularly moving cartoon depicts Kart crying, but instead of tears, he weeps the Turkish flag. Text besides his face reads: “Free!”
However, Kichka, an Israeli cartoonist, professor of fine arts in Jerusalem and member of Cartooning for Peace, said that cartoons for Musa Kart will be just “one more drop of water in the ocean of dictatorship and hatred.”
“I am afraid that in our free democracies we are unable to take the true measure of such oppression and the impact of such a violent frontal attack on freedoms and men.”
While Kart’s freedom edges marginally closer, his and his colleagues’ legitimate liberation is yet to arrive. Whatever happens in his trial in September, there will remain a plethora of media workers who face suppression by Erdoğan’s authoritarian leadership. The long fight for freedom of expression, especially where it holds the powerful to account, will continue.
Lydia Morrish, WikiTribune; in cooperation with the Jimmy Wales Foundation