There are hardly any independent newspapers in Turkey. The exceptions are satirical weekly magazines, which seem to have more freedoms and say they have a journalistic aim. “ Leman isn’t meant to make people laugh or to cheer them up. Leman is pure journalism.”
Istanbul – No, Zafer Aknar, editor in chief of Turkish weekly Leman, does’t have a special strategy for the coming elections in his country (July 22). It’s business as usual: criticise anybody who deserves it, whoever it is. Aknar – former war correspondent for several Turkish newspapers, with grey stubble, motorcycle jacket, helmet on the floor next to his chair – has only one goal with Leman: “Contribute to democracy and to more respect for human rights.”
That mission he tries to accomplish with a magazine that is bought weekly by around 60,000 (mainly young) Turks and is being read by many more. It’s not a magazine with deep investigative journalism, but a magazine full of cartoons, satirising just about everything that’s going on in Turkish society, from religion, gossip and politics to the roles of the sexes and the power of the army. Leman is not one of a kind: sister magazine Penguen also critisizes everything and many young people read it.
Cartoon magazines play an important role in Turkish journalism, says Ugur Gündüz, journalism teacher at Istanbul University. “These satirical magazines are always very topical, they comment very quickly on developments and events in Turkey and the rest of the world. Often they comment in a way you would not see in normal newspapers. They work independently, and that gives them an enormous freedom to target anyone and anything.”
Like, in recent months, the mass demonstrations against the Erdogan administration and in favour of the secular state. Erdogan was one target, but so were his political rivals, who were present at every demonstration only to, according to some people, get some political gain out of it – none of the long-established partiesare known for their ability to connect with the average Turk any more. And when at the beginning of this year the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was killed, Leman made a beautiful cover with an illustration of Dink surrounded by pigeons. On the inside pages the murder was spotlighted from different perspectives.
Leman (previously called Limon, meaning Lemon) and Penguen (Penguin) both have a print run of around 60,000 copies each week. Put in perspective: mass newspapers like Posta, Hürriyet and Zaman are ten times as big, but the satirical weeklies are on a par with smaller but not unimportant daily newspapers like Radikal (40,000) and Cumhuriyet (70,000).
Posters, mugs and calenders
The most remarkable thing about the satirical magazines is their independance. In Turkey most of the media are owned by a few big corporations which benefit from maintaining good relationships with government and politicians, and therefore never get too critical. Cartoon magazines are published without corporate patronage, and at Penguen the cartoonists themselves own the magazine.. “We don’t have to suck up to anybody” says Selçuk Erdem, cartoonist and editor of Penguen. “Not even to advertisers, because we don’t sell space for ads.”
The magazines survive on sales of the magazine,and retailing all sorts of Leman and Penguen products (like posters, comics, mugs and calendars), and Leman runs a cafe and a restaurant in Istanbul and Ankara.
Also Selçuk Erdem says ‘his’ Penguen plays a journalistic role. “It’s not our first aim, because that is just to make people laugh and to make them think a bit. You could say we are less engaged then Leman. But we do know that lots of young people read our magazine and that usually they don’t read other magazines. Also about the upcoming elections their opinions are partly based on what they see every week in Penguen.”
In the lead-up to the elections Penguen reserves some extra pages for political satire. “Turkish society got polarised very quickly”, says Erdem, “and we don’t join the polarisation. We look at it from a distance and give our comments. I think there is a need for this lighter perspective. It becomes more and more rare.”
When the newspaper Cumhuriyet was prosecuted in 2005 for publishing a cartoon of prime minister Tayyip Erdogan as a cat entangled in a ball of wool (as a symbol for a political issue he couldn’t solve), Penguen decided to reserve its whole cover for a Tayyip-animalfamily. The complaint that Erdogan also filed about this cartoon was not brought to court by the prosecutor , most likely because a judge in a case about a re-print of the cat-cartoon decided that public figures need to just deal with applause and critisism.
At the beginning of last year, Erdogan aimed his arrows at Leman, which depicted him as a tick. The person bitten by the tick (which can be seen as a symbol for Turkey) is wondering what would be more dangerous: pull it straight out or wait till it is gorged and drops off by itself. Editor in chief Aknar: ‘The prosecutor has decided not to take the case to court because this is a clear case of freedom of opinion. I don’t seek to provoke court cases but such a decision of course helps to broaden the freedom of speech.”
There are no cartoons or subjects that Aknar doesn’t allow in his magazine. But sometimes he uses ‘tricks’ to avoid court cases. By the tick cartoon, for example, the name ‘Erdogan’ is not mentioned, and if names are used, they are sometimes spelled a little different; Tayyib instead of Tayyip, for example. Aknar: “Then you can always say the person who complains wasn’t referred to. No, that’s no self censorship, it is on the contrary a way to publish more ‘extreme’ cartoons than we could otherwise. We want to be able to say everything we want, and if for that we sometimes need a trick, then so be it.”
Penguen doesn’t need those kinds of tricks, says Selçuk Erdem. “Because of our independence, we have a lot of freedom in the cartoons we publish, but that doesn’t mean we do just anything. The aim of a cartoon is not to be as cruel or harsh as possible, it’s about the message you have. The message is our protection. The Tayyip animal-family was a way to support the cartoonist who depicted Erdogan as a cat. Something like that has to be possible, so that’s why we decided to exagerate it a little.”
Tayyip animal family
It seems weird that Aknar and Erdem talk so lightly about the freedom their magazines have. As if not one after another complaint is filed against journalists, writers and politicians that violate article 301 in the Turkish penal code, which makes belittling “Turkishness” punishable by law. And as if just a few years ago Cumhuriyet was not prosecuted because of a cartoon. Nevertheless, the fact remains that lots of complaints (often filed by nationalist lawyers) are in the end never brought to trial because the prosecutor sees no ground for it, and that many cases that do make it to court do not lead to convictions. These cases also don’t make it to the news.
Selçuk Erdem: “I cannot think of any cartoon we wouldn’t make. It doesn’t exist. And if a politician feels offended, he can go to court. But the last few cases turned out positively for cartoonists. By now, politicians must see that complaining about a cartoon only draws more attention to it?”