For cartoonist Cem Dinlenmiş, “making fun of serious things is not a light business”. In his home country of Turkey, finding the humour in social and political topics certainly isn’t always a laughing matter.
Satirists and the publications they draw and write for face many of the same potential threats as members of the news media in a place where press freedom is widely seen as in decline: lawsuits, jail time, firing, fines, censorship, and online and even physical attacks.
Though Dinlenmiş said he has not been personally targeted, chronicling the absurdities of daily life and national news in this atmosphere takes its own toll.
“I find myself drawing some of the same things over and over – like cartoons on freedom of speech issues – which is a bit heart-breaking and depressing”, Dinlenmiş said. His political comic series “Her Şey Olur” (Anything Goes) has been running in weekly humour magazines since 2006, first in Penguen and now in Uykusuz.
“You have journalists held in prison for no reason, then let out for no reason”, he said. “It becomes like a routine: going to Çağlayan [courthouse], to Silivri [prison], seeing them released, everyone’s happy, but then there’s another person – or even the same one, like [journalist] Ahmet Şık or [cartoonist] Musa Kart – going back to prison again.”
In this climate, self-censorship is inevitable, according to Ezgi Aksoy, who writes a satirical column on politics and culture for Bayan Yanı, an all-women humour magazine.
“When we started publishing eight years ago, I would only check my work once or twice before sending it to the editor-in-chief”, Aksoy said. “But today, because of the pressure and rage against humour magazines, I check my articles and columns at least four or five times before sending them. And I even change certain parts sometimes if they still seem like they might be ‘too much’.”
Pointed comedy, and the backlash against it, both have a long history in Turkey, according to Melike Eğilmezler Boylan, author of the 2016 book Güldürme Beni! – Mizah Üstüne Ciddi Söyleşiler (Don’t Make Me Laugh! Serious Conversations about Humour). “Within Turkish language and culture there is a tradition of resistance that is humorous and absurdist, going back to the Karagöz shadow-puppet performances of Ottoman times, and the even earlier folk stories of Nasreddin Hoca”, she said. “We have this in our DNA, and it’s still being used by today’s humourists in creative ways.”
Hakan Bilginer is one of those innovators. A former IT engineer, he started the online publication Zaytung in 2009 as Turkey’s version of The Onion from the United States: a purveyor of satirical news that sometimes feels more truthful than the real thing. Though Zaytung’s mocking headlines and stories find humour in the workplace, relationships, and sports fanaticism, among a wide range of topics, Bilginer said that “as the country becomes more political, so does Zaytung”.
“When times are heavy and opening a newspaper or turning on the TV can make you stressed and angry, people may turn off and become apolitical. Satire gives them a way to keep following the news without setting off their rage”, Bilginer said. “Humour can also be a safer way of expressing dissent when it’s hard to speak out, a way to give people a sense that they’re not alone and the courage to keep resisting.”
Though Bilginer says the publication sometimes receives threatening letters from lawyers, Zaytung hasn’t been sued or targeted by the state – something he attributes largely to the fact that it doesn’t use by-lines. “It’s easier to put pressure on an individual who signed their name to an article or a cartoon”, he said. “When it’s anonymous, they don’t know who to open a case against.”
Humourists have faced pressure in Turkey since the first critical cartoons and satirical journals appeared in print in the 1870s. Jokes deemed “offensive” have landed their creators in jail or caused publications to be fined or shuttered in every era, under the Ottomans and the early Turkish Republic, democratically elected governments and military juntas. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been particularly litigious, however, opening thousands of cases against journalists, satirists, and even social-media users on charges of “insulting the president”. Some of his political allies have done likewise: former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım sued the leftist newspaper Evrensel in June, for example, for reporting on a series of social-media memes that mocked his campaign posters from his unsuccessful run to become Istanbul mayor.
In addition to legal pressure, humourists in Turkey are at risk from public outrage, sometimes fuelled by inflammatory reactions in the mainstream media, which is largely dominated by government-aligned outlets. Ronî Battê was working for the comic magazine LeMan in 2015 when it was threatened over expressing support for Charlie Hebdo following a deadly terrorist attack on the French satirical weekly newspaper.
“I didn’t feel comfortable sitting and working at LeMan Kültür [a cafe connected with the magazine] during that period”, Battê, whose cartoons now appear in the online newspaper Gazete Duvar, said. “Media in Turkey is under a lot of pressure from fanatics.”
He cited another example of a cartoon that Halil İncesu drew for International Women’s Day in March 2016 that was published in Özgür Gündem, a leftist pro-Kurdish newspaper that has since been shuttered by court order for spreading “terrorist propaganda”. Meant to draw attention to the issue of violence against women, İncesu’s comic was interpreted as insulting to the Prophet Mohammed by some religious conservatives, who took to the streets in protest in the cities of Diyarbakır and Ağrı.
Though backlashes aren’t always predictable, some topics are more likely than others to create trouble for humourists. “In the 1980s, the taboos were the military regime and Kemalism [the founding ideology of the Republic of Turkey]”, author Eğilmezler Boylan said. “Under the current government, this has shifted to religion as the political environment became more conservative.”
“Drawing the Ottoman sultans in a way that isn’t seen as respectful can get you into trouble too”, cartoonist Dinlenmiş added. Dinlenmiş cited football teams as another sensitive topic in a country where fans are fervent about their loyalties.
“No topics are really off-limit for us, but you have to be more careful with your language on the ones that are known to be sensitive, like insulting the president or religion”, Zaytung founder Bilginer said.
As the constraints on humourists in Turkey change with the times, so do their fortunes. The current boom in independent online publishing, and the widespread use of social media, has given them new platforms for their work that feel freer in some ways than traditional media. But popularity doesn’t necessarily come with profitability.
“Publications like Penguen had way more followers [online] than subscribers”, Battê said of the beloved comic magazine, which closed in 2017. “And it’s hard to get royalties for your work in the social media age; even some of the most popular cartoonists I know have to draw advertisements to make a living.”
And while Turkey’s ever-tumultuous politics provide satirists with plenty of material, it can also create fatigue among the reading public.
“People assume that satire will flourish under authoritarian rule, but that isn’t always the case; there needs to be hope that things will change”, Dinlenmiş said. “Continuing to draw even when I don’t feel like it, even when it seems like people aren’t paying attention, is a kind of resistance.”