An incredible controversy about Cyprus is spreading between Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot state. The cartoon by local cartoonist Utku Karsu depicts a “landing ship” anchored at a Cypriot shore, bringing the island a group of criminals. The cartoon was first published in the “Kıbrıs” (Cyprus) newspaper of failed business tycoon Asil Nadir. Why has it become a source of controversy after so many months over its publication? That’s a mystery.
Nationalists, associations, and a political party claiming to represent Anatolian Turks who have settled in Cyprus since the 1974 Turkish intervention have been staging demonstrations, accusing the cartoonist and the Kıbrıs newspaper of disseminating hatred and thus spreading “fascist, racist, and anti-Turkish feelings” among the local Turkish Cypriot people.
Indeed, the cartoon was badly drawn, and personally, I consider the depiction of mainland Turkish settlers in Cyprus as criminals as a deplorable and disgusting approach even though statistics vividly demonstrate the overwhelming majority of inhabitants of the Turkish Cypriot prison facilities have a mainland background. Yet, it is totally unacceptable to disseminate a rejectionist, racist mentality of looking down on them. But, cartoonists, like anyone else, should be entitled to express their opinion in any way they consider appropriate. How could the freedom of expression be denied from an artist, writer, journalist, academic, or plain citizen?
Indeed, in its Dec. 7, 1976 decision in the Handyside v. United Kingdom case, the European Court of Human Rights produced an exemplary definition of what freedom of expression must entail:
“Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of such a society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every man. Subject to [legitimate restrictions], it is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favorably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance, and broadmindedness without which there is no democratic society.”
If every single person in a society was required to conform with the feelings, hopes, and demands of an absolute opinion maker; if everyone expressing views and convictions other than what’s said or considered appropriate by a certain person or the dominant section of a society, would it be possible for mankind to achieve any progress further than the entrance of a stone age cave?
Could a society progress in any way if artists, writers, journalists, academics, scientists are not required to undertake in efforts or engage in works aimed at changing their societies but consider it appropriate to abide with the “let sleeping dogs lie” mentality?
The Kıbrıs newspaper appears to have been bought out by pro-Greek propagandists. Its former editor—who was on duty during the publication of the controversial cartoon—was often accused of being a “traitor who sold his soul to the Greeks.” Those are of course nasty accusations that demonstrate the editorial policy of the newspaper has been making some sections of Turkish Cypriot society unhappy. Yet, as the Handyside verdict clearly and explicitly underlined, the freedom of expression is needed mostly for the free expression of those ideas and assessments that might be considered deplorable by the state or by some sections of the society. Otherwise, if everyone was to express the same view and for example if some 10 newspapers appear with the same headline and more than a dozen columnists make the same assessments in their columns on the same day, we may talk of an incredible cohesion in that country but absolute absence of a democratic society.
To question and to be able to make people question the undertakings of the political authority is very important in democratic societies. In any way, the tradition of cartoons, particularly in this part of the world where freedom of expression has always been under oppression, has been one of unleashing criticism of the authority in a very creative and often straight forward manner. Why do you think “Gır Gır” reached a weekly circulation of over 1.5 million immediately after the 1980 coup? It was an outlet for criticism of the absolute power of the putschist authority.
Why did a cartoon published in May become a source of controversy in August? Of course, some people see some benefit in encouraging a racist controversy between the local and post-1974 population of Northern Cyprus. This is a very bad game.
Thus, not only for the sake of freedom of expression but also in seeing the very bad designs of disseminating hatred between the Turks of Cyprus and the Turks of Turkey, this controversy must be terminated.