While journalists in Turkey face jail for writing negatively about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, two in the occupied territory of Cyprus were acquitted of charges of insulting him for having their paper publish a cartoon showing a Greek statue urinating on his head.
A court threw out charges of defamation against Şener Levent and Ali Osman Tabak brought after the small-circulation daily Afrika published a cartoon depicting a Greek statue urinating on Erdoğan’s head.
“Our reaction is one of relief … this is clearly a good sign for press freedom,” Pauline Ades-Mevel of the Paris-based rights group Reporters Without Borders told The Guardian.
“You don’t convict journalists because of a cartoon,” she said. “If they had been sent to prison, it would have had a chilling effect on other journalists in northern Cyprus.”
Levent, the newspaper’s veteran editor, and Tabak, its chief reporter, had faced up to five years in prison if found guilty of accusations that included “inciting hatred against a foreign leader with the aim of disrupting peaceful relations between the two countries.”
While technically independent as a Republic only Turkey recognizes, the occupied land still relies heavily on military and financial aid from Turkey, which keeps a 35,000-strong standing army there, one of the reasons reunification talks broke down in 2017.
Levent said the verdict was a victory for the Turkish-Cypriot media while journalists in Turkey live with the threat of constant prosecution and fear under Erdogan, who wants to bring Turkey into the European Union despite muzzling freedom of the press.
“Erdoğan lost and we won,” he said after the trial result was announced to loud applause, said The Guardian. “Turkey cannot do here what it does in Turkey … We are Cypriots, citizens of the Republic of Cyprus and of the EU. We are not in Turkey here.”
Citing previous European Court of Human Rights rulings exonerating journalists of similar charges, Judge Cenkay Inan said he did not believe the cartoon “constitutes an insult.” It was first printed in an Athenian newspaper after Erdogan’s visit to Greece in December, 2017.
Afrika republished it under the caption, Through Greek Eyes. The judge ruled the newspaper was showing how Greeks felt about Erdogan.
In Turkey, almost 200 journalists have been jailed, most rounded up after a failed July, 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan who then purged civil society, the military, the courts and said he’d like to bring back the death penalty, which is forbdden in the EU.
Levent, a candidate in the May 26 European Union elections although Turkey is not a member, has taken to provoking Erdogan, calling him an “Islamo-fascist” whose goal is to fully occupy Cyprus through another invasion and bring in Turkish mainland settlers.
Last year a mob of ultra-nationalists stormed Afrika’s offices after being incited by Erdoğan “to give the necessary response,” after Levent criticized Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria, likening it to the country’s invasion of Cyprus.
The editor was almost lynched in an incident that later prompted thousands of Turkish-Cypriot protesters to take to the streets. Sami Özuslu, who heads the mini-state’s largest journalists’ association, told the paper the verdict would embolden local media outlets to keep on telling the truth.
“The court ruling was a good day for press freedom and freedom of expression,” Özuslu said. “Now journalists won’t feel they face any problem when they write their thoughts and that is very important for today, for tomorrow, for the future,” he added.