Turkish fury as Erdogan, champion of free speech, sues over cartoon

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The Independent Online

Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has presented himself in the past as a champion of free speech, is facing an embarrassing storm of criticism for suing a political cartoonist who poked fun at him.

Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has presented himself in the past as a champion of free speech, is facing an embarrassing storm of criticism for suing a political cartoonist who poked fun at him.

Mr Erdogan, once imprisoned for reciting a poem that was deemed to be anti-state, took Musa Kart and his newspaper, Cumhuriyet, to court after he was portrayed as a cat entangled in a ball of wool.

He also launched a lawsuit against a small, local newspaper, Sakarya, which reprinted the cartoon. The result has been an untimely debate about freedom of expression in Turkey, just as Mr Erdogan is desperately trying to accelerate the timetable of the country's accession to the EU.

A court in Ankara last week found Kart guilty of "publicly humiliating the Prime Minister" and fined him 5,000 lira (£2,000). Another court, however, threw out the case against Sakarya - and had a sharp word of advice for Mr Erdogan.

"People who are under public light are forced to endure criticism in the same way that they endure applause," Judge Mithat Ali Kabaali said in his ruling. "A prime minister who was forced to serve a long jail term for reciting a poem should show more tolerance to these kinds of criticisms."

Metin Peker, the head of the association of political cartoonists, said the group was "truly saddened to be experiencing such a development at the time when we're in the process of entering the EU".

Mr Erdogan has not commented on the court rulings. But cartoonists, newspapers and some politicians were outraged. "It is clear that Erdogan has no tolerance at all for criticism," the columnist Turker Alkan wrote in the Radikal newspaper on Friday. "The problem is that Erdogan is used to a press that always applauds him. When one gets used to a press support only seen in dictatorships, it must be difficult to tolerate even the most justified criticism."

A former legislator, Aydin Menderes, was quoted in Sabah newspaper as saying that Mr Erdogan should "remember how harshly he criticised previous governments". Mr Menderes, the son of the late premier Adnan Menderes, added that his father was once depicted as a belly dancer and he did not sue. The newspaper Hurriyet on Saturday ran the headline: "A person who served time because of a poem should not do this."

In a show of defiance and solidarity with Kart, the weekly satirical magazine Penguen printed drawings of Mr Erdogan's head attached to a variety of animal bodies on its cover.

In the original cartoon, Mr Erdogan's face was drawn on the body of a cat entangled in a ball of wool. "Stop creating tensions. I promised I would solve this," the cartoon says, poking fun at the problems the government was having with a bill that would have made it easier for religious schools' graduates to enter universities. The bill was vetoed by the secularist President Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

Since coming to office in 2002, Mr Erdogan has made Turkey's drive for membership in the EU a cornerstone of his foreign policy, and has worked to expand freedoms. "I am against imprisoning people for their opinions, thoughts or beliefs, provided these do not turn into actions," Mr Erdogan said in a speech last year referring to the four-month jail term he served in 1999 for reciting an "inflammatory" poem.

This is the second time Mr Erdogan has taken legal action against a cartoon. Last year a court fined the left-wing newspaper Evrensel 10,000 lira for a cartoon which portrayed Mr Erdogan as a horse.

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