Turkish political cartoonists protest prime minister's defamation suit

Artists say leader seeks to stifle free expression

February 24, 2005|By Amberin Zaman | Amberin Zaman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ANKARA, Turkey - This nation's best-known political cartoonists gathered in Istanbul yesterday to protest legal action taken by the prime minister against artists who criticized him through their work.

Members of the Turkish Cartoonists Association accuse Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of trying to stifle free expression even as Turkey prepares to seek membership in the European Union.

"We cartoonists have long faced pressure from politicians," Metin Peker, the association's president, said at a news conference. "Just as we thought those dark days were over, we have been confronted with this."

Peker was referring to a defamation suit filed recently by Erdogan against Musa Kart, a cartoonist for the secular daily newspaper Cumhuriyet. Kart was fined $3,500 by an Ankara court last week on charges of assailing Erdogan's honor in a cartoon that depicted him as a cat enmeshed in a ball of wool.

The work was published by Cumhuriyet in May, when the Turkish leader proposed legislation to allow graduates of Islamic clerical training schools to enter secular universities. In the cartoon, Erdogan says in part: "Do not create tensions."

Turkish secularists accused the former Islamist leader of doing just that by trying to increase the role of Islam in public life. The bill was rejected by the country's secularist president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

Kart denies that he insulted Erdogan.

"I was merely trying to show that he had become trapped in his own rhetoric," Kart said yesterday in an interview, adding that he would appeal the verdict.

Erdogan spent a brief stint in jail in 1998 after being convicted on charges of trying to incite a religious uprising through a nationalist poem he recited at a rally. Since taking office, he has filed more than 50 cases against journalists and cartoonists.

"One would think that as a victim of repression, Erdogan would be the least likely leader to go after our friends," said Tuncay Akgun, the co-owner of Turkey's largest selling weekly cartoon magazine, Leman.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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