CRNI Executive Director Terry Anderson interview with Turkish cartoonist Musa Kart, winner of our annual Courage in Cartooning Award in 2005.
Musa describes the multiple times Prime Minister, later President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attempted to prosecute him over “insulting” cartoons, finally succeeding during the widespread crackdown on civil liberties that followed the attempted coup of 2016.
This interview was conducted in 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic; at that time CRNI expressed deep concerns about the future of cartooning. This forms part of a series of testimonies intended to help illustrate CRNI’s work in support of threatened cartoonists.
Musa, we first wrote about you long before Recep Erdoğan became president of Turkey. When and how did he first begin his vendetta against you?
About twenty-three years ago I began drawing cartoons in Cumhuriyet, the most prestigious opposition newspaper in Turkey. Cumhuriyet was always a defender of values such as human rights, equality and multiculturalism. With this attitude the newspaper and its employees were regarded with suspicion by conservative politicians and kept under constant pressure. And I got my share. The first case was due to the Erdoğan caricature I drew in 2004 and since that date the pressure on me escalated.
You won CRNI’s Courage in Cartooning Award in 2005; what did this recognition mean to you?
The CRNI award meant that the world’s cartoonists were taking a stand beside a colleague who the powers that be wanted silenced, by lawsuits and the threat of punishment. As I said before, this award made me feel like a member of the world cartoonist family and still hangs in the corner of my living room, on the most visible wall in my home.
You were taken to court and exonerated again about a decade later, but things took a turn for the worse after the attempted coup in the summer of 2016. Explain what happened later that year.
Despite all the pressure Cumhuriyet’s employees continued their critical and dissenting work until October 2016. Unfortunately that preceding summer the country witnessed a coup attempt by a group that previously supported the government. But this coup, which led to the deaths of hundreds of people and thousands of injuries, was turned into an opportunity by the government. They threw all their opponents, regardless of their lack of support for the coup into one proverbial basket. And so we were among those targeted. After being detained in prison for nine months we were released for our court hearing. We continued to write and draw from where we had left off, and this middling situation lasted about a year. Afterwards they sent us back to prison despite the objections of the public and contrary opinions from the chief judges and even the justice minister. A further five months later we were released again with a decision from the Supreme Court. But outside we found conditions were even more severe. Our newspaper was taken away from us. Lawsuits were filled even for those who had merely shared the cartoons I had drawn years ago. And the latest development: the lower criminal court demanded that we be jailed again, saying it would not comply with the Supreme Court’s release order. So we now await The Supreme Court Assembly of Criminal Chambers’ last word. For the better part of a year I’ve been at home, under threat of being imprisoned for a third time.
CRNI collaborated with Amnesty International on their #FreeTurkeyMedia campaign and Cumhuriyet started reprinting some of the resulting cartoons in your old front page spot while you were in jail. Does international attention like this help those fighting for their freedom of expression in Turkey?
Unfortunately, such objections often cannot be expressed out loud due to the climate of fear created in our country. The support I received from CRNI and the various cartoonists during this period was my biggest source of morale. I owe you and them thanks.
Your opening statement at trial was fantastic, we worked hard to translate and publish it as soon as possible on our website. You said you feel cartooning encourages critical thinking. Explain.
Cartooning is the art of the moment in which the independent, free-thinking, questioning mind, begins to express itself. That’s why there’s no love between authoritarians and cartoonists. As I said in my own defence, we should evaluate cartooning as a means for the development of critical thinking in our schools but we evidently prefer to pursue judicial processes that would completely destroy it.
Famously, Turkey is the world’s biggest prosecutor of journalists and media workers. There have also been economic impacts upon the press in the country. Yet Turkey has a culture of cartooning just as rich and varied as many European nations; do you see it recovering?
You cannot destroy a public’s sense of humour by putting cartoonists in jail. It can appear suddenly, at the most unexpected moment and place, like a flower blooming through a stone wall.
Unfortunately, the media in Turkey has mostly lost its ability to be free and independent. I saw the extent and the “burning” effect of this change in my own personal story. There was a big objection from the entire Turkish media to the lawsuit filed for the cat caricature I drew about fifteen years ago. However, in the most recent judicial process that has been going on for the last four years, the eyes of our media were completely shut.
But I cared about the support of the world cartoonists’ family the most. While still facing the possibility of going to prison for the third time I believe that I will continue to feel the support of this wonderful family.
I am sad to see that you have stopped cartooning after all these troubles. Do you still draw for your own pleasure?
I think that after some forty years as a cartoonist who pursued that solely, against all pressures, it’s ok to find another way to express myself. I am currently working on an oil painting exhibition, with a dash of humour in it.