The oft-repeated statement “an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us” applies to political cartoonists worldwide after Turkish cartoonist Musa Kart was sentenced to prison. Why should Americans care about the fate of a satirist who mocked his president in a country half way around the world? Because it can happen here.
It wasn’t that long ago Turkey was a beacon of democracy with a relatively freewheeling press. In a part of the world known for strongmen and monarchies, Turkish institutions were working hard to liberalize and guarantee individual freedoms, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But with the ascension of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, all that changed.
Erdogan used an attempt to oust him for his autocratic tendencies as an excuse to crack down on his opponents. Thousands were fired from universities, tens of thousands from government positions, and 50,000 were arrested, including his critics in the media.
One of those arrested on trumped-up charges was Musa Kart, whose cartoons depicting Erdogan as a corrupt strongman surely irritated the Turkish president, whose base of support comes from the country’s religious conservatives—a group not known for being friendly to humor or a free press.
In a travesty of a trial, Kart — along with 13 fellow journalists and staff members of his newspaper — was found guilty of “aiding terrorist organizations” and sentenced to almost four years in prison. Last week the Geneva-based foundation Cartooning for Peace gave Kart its International Editorial Cartoons Prize. “The jury has chosen Musa Kart, iconic cartoonist of the Istanbul newspaper Cumhuriyet, for his talent and courage in defense of freedom of expression,” a statement from the group said.
While we’re sure Mr. Kart was honored, he could not accept the award in person because the Turkish government has banned him from traveling abroad.
In normal times it would be unthinkable that American journalists and satirists would fear for their freedom. These are not normal times. The current occupant of the White House has repeatedly attacked the press, even reviving the Stalinist phrase “enemy of the people” to describe us, all while encouraging violence against his opponents. It’s no longer unthinkable that one who irritates the leading political figure in America won’t be made to pay a price.
The dark path Turkey has taken is one that we in the United States must guard against.
—The AAEC Board