Human Rights

The ‘Kafkaesque’ trial of Turkish cartoonist Musa Kart

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Lydia Morrish

Lydia Morrish

"I adapted The Land's edits slightly, ..."

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 political cartoonists to analyze, mock and satirize prominent events – especially those concerning the powerful. But in some parts of the world, the powerful often 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 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 attempted 2016 military 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. He was 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.

People protesting imprisonment of journalists from Cumhuriyet in Şişli, İstanbul (Photo: Cumhuriyet Gazetesi via Wikimedia Commons)

Although the seizing of Kart and his colleagues was described as a 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, an interim verdict was announced and Kart was released under judicial supervision until the legal case resumes on October 31, a representative of the Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI), told WikiTribune in an email.

Five senior figures of Cumhuriyet remain in custody.

According to the Cartoon Rights Network: “Musa has been in good spirits since his conditional release but has wanted to stay out of the glare of publicity for the most part and concentrate on the legal case against himself and his colleagues.”

While the news of Kart’s release is “better than expected,” according to the network, reports of “freedom” are certainly mistaken. He is “not exonerated and not quite free,” said Terry Anderson, a member of the cartoon network’s board of directors.

Kart’s lawyer said the Cumhuriyet trials were worse than the McCarthy cases, the infamous hearings of 1950 sparked by Sen. Joe 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 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 on July 24.

While defending his position as a cartoonist who has mocked terrorists organizations 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 government 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 organization 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 symptomatic of Kart’s work as a cartoonist.

This cartoon, showing a book reading “History of democracy”, demonstrates Musa Kart’s ridicule of anyone opposed to democracy, regardless of their position. (Image: Musa Kart)

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 standardized forms are what make for a true and effective cartoon.”

Anderson, an active, professional cartoonist himself, believes the function of political 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.” Kart 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 said:

“[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.

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 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, there will remain a plethora of media workers who face suppression by Erdoğan’s authoritarian leadership. Their long fight for freedom of expression, especially where it holds the powerful to account, will continue.

This report is produced in partnership with the Jimmy Wales Foundation which campaigns for freedom of expression on the internet. Jimmy Wales is the founder of WikiTribune.


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Lydia is a staff journalist at WikiTribune, where she writes about politics, women's rights, inequality, sexual politics and more. Previously she headed up the women’s rights and political content at Konbini for over two years. In 2016, she made ‘Building Big’, a documentary about bigorexia and male body image. Her work has also been published in Dazed & Confused, Refinery29, Vice, Lyra, Banshee and Buffalo Zine. She is based in London.

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12 January 2018

Talk for Story "The ‘Kafkaesque’ trial of Turkish cartoonist Musa Kart"

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  1. I adapted The Land’s edits slightly, blending both their and my versions of the first paragraph, as I found “the powerful fighting back with weapons of their own choosing” to be too sensationalist for WikiTribune.

    I also felt “keeping the powerful firmly in their sights” was too figurative, so changed it to “especially those concerning the powerful”, which is a blend of our two versions that is more literal.

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